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Satellite rescue mission: this week in tech, 20 years ago

Satellite rescue mission: this week in tech, 20 years ago

Next week is the start of annual gaming convention Quakecon, where we’re likely to see some news about Fallout 76, the latest installment in a franchise that hit its two-decade anniversary last year. Inspired by Fallout 76 coverage like this essay from my colleague Patricia Hernandez, I started replaying the original 1997 Fallout this summer, then I got sucked into a vortex of Black Isle Studios games. The upshot is that I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of the past two months clicking through isometric battles and dialog trees, and I have no idea when or how I’ll break free, so it’s fair to say the late ‘90s is on my mind a lot lately.

Unfortunately, Fallout 2 isn’t turning 20 until late September, so there’s no news on that front here. But read on for robot wars, the Siri of the ‘90s, and a satellite rescue mission.

General Magic, somewhat paradoxically, is widely known as the most important Silicon Valley startup that nobody’s heard of. In the ‘90s, the company unveiled a device that functioned a lot like the modern smartphone, but it was sunk by a combination of excessive hype, bad planning, and simply having an idea that was way too advanced for the technology of the time. An excellent documentary about General Magic premiered this year, and Recode’s Kara Swisher (who, incidentally, appears in the film) interviewed its directors earlier this week.

But as Fast Company recently noted, the documentary General Magic doesn’t delve into every detail of General Magic’s history. That includes one moment from this week in 1998: on July 30th, General Magic started shipping Portico, a virtual assistant with a Siri-like voice interface. Portico was the company’s attempt to move past its disastrous failure with Sony’s Magic Link PDA, and Fast Company explains the ways it was genuinely groundbreaking and exciting — even if General Magic did demo it with an excruciatingly awkward Monica Lewinsky joke.

Back in the heyday of AOL, tech site CNET launched its own web service, called Snap Online. Snap (no, not that Snap) was an AOL competitor that touted its “family-friendly environment.” It didn’t include pornographic sites in its listings, and subscribers could get a children’s CD-ROM starter kit featuring interactive tutorials for email, web browsing, and web safety. So in 1998, Wired was alarmed to learn that you could find pages with porn, including bestiality, through the service.

According to Wired, Snap basically decided that you simply couldn’t run a profitable site without letting people find internet porn. “No tits, no hits,” one former employee quipped. But executives were also grappling with how much an online platform should try to shape people’s experience of the web, and how much it should simply reflect it. As Snap executive producer Katharine English put it, “When you start editing the web, where do you stop?” For Snap, it ultimately didn’t matter. It got wrapped into the media company NBC Internet less than a year later, and the domain has long been occupied by the company behind Snapchat.

The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite is one of humanity’s key resources for studying the Sun, and in 1998, three years after launch, we almost lost it. During a routine gyroscope calibration on June 24th, SOHO spun out of control, losing the alignment that let its antennas communicate with Earth and its solar panels capture energy. Controllers spent weeks scanning in vain for signals, and in late July, they finally found it by using radio telescopes in Puerto Rico. But it wasn’t until August 3rd that SOHO “replied” to controllers’ signals, officially reestablishing contact with the satellite.

SOHO wasn’t in the clear yet. Space.com has chronicled the months-long process of realigning the satellite and reprogramming it to account for parts that had been damaged during its near-loss, while trying to keep it from running out of power during the process. Fortunately, the team succeeded, and SOHO has been helping us understand the cosmos ever since.

Augmented reality advertising is still nascent on phones, and we’re a long way from seeing digital billboards in smart glasses. But they’ve been part of sports television for decades. In late July of 1998, The Wall Street Journal ran an in-depth story on virtual signage, a then-recent phenomenon being pioneered in baseball stadiums. Virtual signs appeared as blank space for physical spectators, but TV viewers would see ads for films, beer, or soda, varying based on their regional market.

The Journal describes the ads as convincing and sophisticated, using technology to scan space and then project images that can be “blocked” by athletes. And while we tend to focus more on phone-based augmented reality these days, TV virtual signage remains common — even if sports leagues haven’t adopted some of the Journal’s speculative ideas, like digitally filling empty seats or bringing a virtual Babe Ruth onto the field.

When humanity is inevitably crushed beneath the heel of some unstoppable artificial intelligence, it may look upon Robot Wars — the long-standing gladiatorial competition for robots that launched in 1994 — as one of our greatest crimes. So you might as well enjoy a Wired profile of the event from what was arguably the competition’s breakthrough year, when the BBC began broadcasting a Robot Wars television series.

The feature offers a deep look at the people who were starting to devote their lives to building deadly machines, although it’s derailed suddenly with an update at the end, noting that the two organizers of Robot Wars got into a massive legal fight and canceled the event right after Wired went to print. For the story of that battle, and pretty much anything else you might want to know about Robot Wars, you can check out SB Nation’s more recent oral history of the phenomenon.