Some of the best hacks don’t solve real-world problems or reinvent the wheel. They are usually nothing more than an exercise in trying to make something work that seems impossible or useless: like make youtube work on a 40 year old computer with a horribly outdated display.
Although best known for the incredibly popular Commodore 64 8 bit computer which would sell well over 12 million units worldwide, Commodore was founded in 1958, long before the arrival of the C64and was partly responsible for the personal computer revolution of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1977, Commodore launched the PET computer (named for the purpose of making computers part of the family and less intimidating) which looks ridiculously outdated now but sold well over $3,500 when it was introduced 45 years ago.
Thorbjörn Jemander managed to acquire a rare Commodore PET 600 which he turned out to be secretly a Commodore 8296 SK model (with SK referring to a separate keyboard that could be removed) rebadged for the Swedish market a few years later with a surprisingly decent 128 KB of memory. The most distinctive of the machine feature is a monochromatic bright green CRT display with the ability to display a huge 80×25 character grid. Say it’s ugly on today’s screen standards is an understatement, so what better way to use this relic of early desktop PCs than by playing YouTube videos on it?
Not only was the PET 600’s screen limited to displaying characters (letters, numbers, punctuation, etc.), but the machines behind them were incredibly slow, often taking seconds to load and display file lists or other data. There was no way a dedicated YouTube app could be developed for the Commodore BASIC that the PET 600 was running, so Jemander had to take the long way.
They created a combination of hardware and software they dubbed the BlixTerm which took the form of a cartouche connected to one of the the PET 600’s expansion ports on the back. Inside the cartridge is a 2W Raspberry Pi Zero which connects to YouTube via wifi, loads a requested video, then converts the 640 x 200 grayscale stream to 80 x 25 format ASCII character map of the PET internal ROM.
A second interface board loads the generated images from the Raspberry Pi into the video memory of the PET, which is the bottleneck of the process given the limited processing power of the ancient PC, but thanks to optimization, Jemander managed to achieve a very watchable 30 FPS playback speed. Watching YouTube on a 45-year-old desktop computer is far from easy on the eyes, but the fact that it’s even possible is more than impressive.