Visual Information System (VIS) by Memorex (Tandy)

Console Name: Visual Information System
Release Date: November 15, 1992
Original Price: $699
Country of Origin: United States of America
Manufacturer: Tandy
Staff(s):
- Dale Chatham, Project Manager
- Frank Durda IV, Senior Project Software Engineer
- Paul T Schreiber, Senior Project Engineer
- Steve Erickson, Project Engineer (Infra Red)
- Carl Wakeland, Project Engineer (Video)
- Rick Thompson, Application-specific integrated circuit
Number of Games Cartridges: 84

History
Like Coleco, Tandy started as a leather company. Founded in 1919 under the name Hinckley-Tandy Leather Company. Tandy started to expand and acquired American Handicrafts Company in the ’50s, adding hobbyist-related product to their leather stores. By 1962, they bought Radio Shack which was near bankruptcy at the time.

By the mid 70s it was clear for Tandy that the computer and the video game industries were here to stay and decided to invest heavily in them. In 1977, Tandy releases the TRS-80 computer under the Radio-Shack brand as well as the TV Scoreboard. Aside from the Tandyvision One in 1982 which was a rebranding of the Intellivision, Tandy stayed out of the video game business for almost a decade, but in 1989, Tandy started working with Microsoft on a new CD-based console. The goal: fill a gap between video games and personal computers.

Code-named Project 513. Although all Tandy’s R&D project used numbers as project names, some project also had a “pet name” within the development team. As such, Project 513 was also known within the team as project Gryphon.

The work on the Gryphon was primarily done by Frank Durda and Paul T Schreiber. Frank overseen the software design and was the primary liaison between Tandy and Microsoft while Paul was in charge of the system architecture, the audio, the CD-ROM, the memory card and was the manager of the Built of Material (BOM) and procurement. Other staff members included Steve Erickson who worked on the Infrared-Controller, Carl Wakeland was in charge of the video aspect, Rick Thompson was responsible for Application-specific integrated circuit and Dale Chatham was the overall project manager.

For the occasion, Microsoft developed a new version of Windows called Windows Modular (code-named Haiku). Based on Windows 3.1, the OS would ensure that developers could easily port existing games from Windows 3.1 to the VIS in a matter of weeks.  150 software were planned for the original roll-out , but only around 80 titles were ready at launch. By comparison, CD-I only had 50 after two years in production.

Tandy also partnered with Zenith that would provide support for the console. They also had a deal to release the console under their own brand as they wanted to include the VIS system as part of a delivery mechanism for large-format television.

Tandy claims that its built-in sales channels, including more than 5,000 Radio Shack stores and the thousands of Tandy Name Brand retail chains, would place VIS boxes within 10 minutes of 90 percent of the U.S. population. Tandy put VIS kiosks in the front of the store, and equip them with demonstration discs that show off a wide range of titles to get consumers ‘hooked’ on the technology. With 35,000 consoles ready to be sold, Tandy was ready to enter the videogame console ring once again.

Around August/September of 1992, as the VIS project approached completion, Microsoft, which was still developing Modular Windows, realized that their minimum hardware requirement for their new OS were too low. On a system with the minimum requirement, programs were sluggish and too slow for consumer acceptance for just about any application. Microsoft had not choice but to bump the minimum from 12 MHz 286 to 16 MHz 386SX and doubled the RAM and ROM requirements to 2 Meg each, which effectively doubled the hardware cost for the processor and associated components at that point in time.

But for Tandy, it was far too late to change the initial VIS hardware platform.  Some of the gate array semiconductors were already in fabrication at that point and all the parts for the machines were already arriving.

Tandy decided to stay the course and start working on a VIS-2 that would meet these requirements.

Release
The Visual Information System (VIS) finally release in November 1992 under the Memorex brand (a brand that belongs to Tandy). It was sold exclusively in the Radio Shack and Tandy store and retailed for $699 USD. Although the price point was fairly high, it was still cheaper than the Philips CD-i which sold for about $1,000 USD. Tandy tried to boost the sell by announcing that 20,000 units had shipped. It was technically true as all store they own would receive at least 2 units, one for demonstration purpose and one for sale. Sadly, the announce was not able to convince anyone as only 255 VIS systems were sold during the Holiday of 1992. To add insult to the injury, the January sales of the VIS system were negative, as some of those 255 came back.

Demise
Although an interesting concept, the VIS was already outdated by the time of its release. 486 processor were introduced in 1989 and the Pentium processor was just around the corner. With nearly three generations behind, the VIS failed to entice any computer enthusiast. Like the CD-i, the VIS was marketed as an edutainment system and just like the CD-i, it failed at delivering a decent experience. Educational software were not at their best while displayed on a television and the lack of action-paced title made drove away any potential gamer. Radio Shack were unable to sell the first production batch of the VIS and the console was stuck with about 50,000 devices. With the sales going nowhere, they had to liquidate them through their way to fire-sale venues such as Home Shopping Club where the VIS was sold for $399. In the end, the system was sold for 99$ bundled with 20 titles.

Shortly thereafter, Microsoft publicly denied that Modular Windows was ever a product, claiming it was just a “Concept” and drop the development of the Windows Modular. In January 1993, all work on the VIS-II system was cancelled, and many of the people working on the project were let go.

Tandy lost $75 million on VIS, as of July 1st 1993.

One of the major problems was the underlying Windows architecture.  For example, when Windows 3.x starts, it opens, reads and closes the SYSTEM.INI file 75 separate times. The big improvement between Windows 3.0 and 3.1 was the addition of SMARTDRV, which cached SYSTEM.INI and WIN.INI to make these reread go faster. Now, if you put SYSTEM.INI on a CD-ROM, and you have no hardware cache in the drive and no SMARTDRV buffering, things get real slow. This problem prevented popular title to be ported to Windows Modular. For example, in the port of Kings Quest V to Windows Modular, it took exactly five minutes from the disc insertion until the point where the game asked “Have you played this game before?”.  The lack of the Windows blockbuster of the time such as Space Quest IV, King Quest V and Lemmings put the final nail in the already very shut VIS coffin.

Compatibility
While VIS applications run on Windows 3.1, the result will be unexpected as there’s usually no way to modify the control scheme for theses applications. Simple application that requires only one button might already work (especially DOS-based applications) with a mouse instead of the controller while others will not be mapped correctly or will not even load.

Technical Specification:

  • CPU: 12 MHz 80286 AMD (N80L286-12/S) on a local bus (not ISA) running at 12 MHz. 0-wait states. Equivalent PC performance somewhere around that of a 386SX-16 or 20.
  • Meg ROM containing minimal MS-DOS 3.x, a few drivers, and the fabled Modular Windows(TM).
  • One built-in application is an audio-CD player, written in Modular Windows
  • 1 Meg of RAM in a conventional PC layout 640K + 384K.
  • Mitsumi 150K/sec CD-ROM drive with 16-bit interface, 800msec access, 1300msec worst case access , CD+G capable, but not Photo-CD. 5000 hour MTBF.
  • IR interface with up to two IR transmitters (hand controllers) operating at once.
  • PS/2 mouse or keyboard interface (either can be connected and are generally recognized by applications). A wired hand controller could also be connected to this port for use in locations where the wireless controller was not practical, or could be used in conjunction with one wireless controller.
  • Outputs: RCA Line left/right, composite video, RF video, S-Video. NTSC video.
  • Dallas Semiconductor plug-in CyberCard – removable non-volatile storage, in sizes up to 512K (big bucks for 512K size) and system comes with 32k unit.
  • Onboard audio is same as Tandy Sensation I: Adlib Gold compatible, not Sound Blaster compatible.
  • Video uses ADAC-1 chip as found in Tandy Sensation I, supports YUV and several high-quality color modes. Also supported some TV-specific features for handling overscan.

Peripherals:

  • The same modem card that went in the Tandy Sensation could also be installed in the VIS. 2400 data 4800 send-only FAX.
  • RS-232 serial board for debug purpose. They were sold 500$.

 

 

Released Software
Software released for the VIS had an initial order of 6,000 copies. This number could go up to 10,000 if Tandy were particularly enthusiast about a specific title.American Heritage – Illustrated Encyclopedic Dictionary (1992)(Xiphias)

  • American Vista – The Multimedia U.S. Atlas (1992)(Applied Optical Media Corporation)
  • Americans in Space (1992)(Multicom Publishing)
  • America’s National Parks (1992)(Multicom Publishing)
  • Astrology Source (1992)(Multicom Publishing)
  • Atlas of U.S. Presidents (1992)(Applied Optical Media Corporation)
  • Awesome Adventures of Victor Vector & Yondo, The – Adventure No. 1 – The Vampire’s
  • Better Homes and Gardens – Healthy Cooking – CD Cookbook (1992)(Multicom Publishing)
  • Better Not Get Wet, Jesse Bear (1992)(Macmillan New Media)
  • Bible Lands, Bible Stories (1992)(Context Systems)
  • Compton’s Multimedia Encyclopedia VIS Edition – 1992 Edition v1.10VIS (1992)(Compton’s NewMedia)
  • December 24th. Story and Pictures by Denys Cazet (1992)(Macmillan New Media)(US)
  • Encyclopedic Dictionary
  • Fitness Partner – For Men and Women v1.0 (1993)(Computer Directions)
  • Great Lives Series: Interactive Biographies of American Heroes Vol. 1 (1992)(JLR Group)
  • Henry and Mudge – In The Sparkle Days (1992)(Macmillan New Media)
  • Henry and Mudge The First Book (1992)(Macmillan New Media) (Story by Cynthia Rylant, Pictures by Sucie Stevenson)
  • Illustrated Encyclopedia
  • Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear? v1.0 (1992)(Macmillan New Media)
  • Kid-Fun (1992)(Radio Shack)
  • Kids Can Read Discis Books! – A Long Hard Day on the Ranch (1992)(Discis)
  • Kids Can Read Discis Books! – Aesop’s Fables (1992)(Discis)
  • Kids Can Read Discis Books! – Cinderella – The Original Fairy Tale (1992)(Discis)
  • Kids Can Read Discis Books! – Heather Hits her First Home Run (1992)(Discis)
  • Kids Can Read Discis Books! – Moving Gives Me A Stomach Ache (1992)(Discis)
  • Kids Can Read Discis Books! – Mud Puddle (1992)(Discis)
  • Kids Can Read Discis Books! – Scary Poems for Rotten Kids (1992)(Discis)
  • Kids Can Read Discis Books! – The Cask of Amontillado (Discus, Nov. 92)
  • Kids Can Read Discis Books! – The Necklace (1992)(Discus)
  • Kids Can Read Discis Books! – The Night Before Christmas (1992)(Discis)
  • Kids Can Read Discis Books! – The Paper Bag Princess (1992)(Discis)
  • Kids Can Read Discis Books! – The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1992)(Discis)
  • Kids Can Read Discis Books! – The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1992)(Discis)
  • Kids Can Read Discis Books! – The Tell-Tale Heart (Discus, Nov. 92)
  • Kids Can Read Discis Books! – Thomas’ Snowsuit (1992)(Discis)
  • Learn To Play Guitar: Vol #1 (with Sting: Every Breath You Take/Message In A Bottle) (1993)(Parallax Publishing)
  • Links – The Challenge of Golf (1992)(Access Software)
  • Living Books – Just Grandma and Me
  • Meeting of Minds Series, The – Interactive Games of History, Art, Music, and Ideas with Steve Allen (1992)(JLR Group)
  • Mosaic Magic (1993)(Kinder Magic Software)
  • Multimedia Animals Encyclopedia
  • Mutanoid Math Challenge (1992)(Legacy Software)
  • Mutanoid Word Challenge (1992)(Legacy Software)
  • My Paint (1992)(Saddleback Graphics)
  • New Basics Electronic Cookbook, The – With Recipes from the Acclaimed Silver Palate Series (1992)(Xiphias)
  • Our House – featuring The Family Circus (1992)(Context Systems)
  • Peter and the Wolf – A Multimedia Storybook (1992)(Ebook)
  • Playing With Language – Games In English (1992)(Syracuse Language Systems)
  • Playing With Language – Games In French (1992)(Syracuse Language Systems)
  • Playing With Language – Games In German (1992)(Syracuse Language Systems)
  • Playing With Language – Games In Japanese (1992)(Syracuse Language Systems)
  • Playing With Language – Games In Spanish (1992)(Syracuse Language Systems)
  • Race the Clock (1992)(Mindplay, Methods & Solutions)
  • Rainbow & Snowflake’s Search for the Sea (1992)(Multicom Publishing)
  • Rick Ribbit – Adventures in Early Learning (1992)(Tadpole Productions)
  • Rodney’s Funscreen (1992)(Activision)
  • Sail With Columbus (1992)(Parallax Publishing)
  • Secrets of Hosea Freeman, The – An Environmental Mystery (1992)(Top Ten Software)
  • Sherlock Holmes – Consulting Detective – Volume I (1992)(ICOM)
  • Sherlock Holmes – Consulting Detective – Volume II (1992)(ICOM)
  • SmartKids Challenge ONE (1992)(ARKEO)
  • Stepping Stones – Talking Bonus Pack – Level I and Level II (1992)(Compu-Teach)
  • Survey of Western Art, A – The Electronic Library of Art (1992)(Ebook)
  • The Awesome Adventures of Victor Vector & Yondo: The Vampire’s Coffin
  • The Manhole (Activision)
  • Time Almanac (1992)(Compact Publishing)
  • Time Table of History – Arts and Entertainment – 1993 Edition (1992)(Xiphias)
  • Time Table of History – Business, Politics & Media – 1993 Edition (1992)(Xiphias)
  • Time Table of History – Science and Innovation – 1993 Edition (1992)(Xiphias)
  • Title Sampler (1992)(Tandy)
  • Video Movie Guide 1993 (Advanced Multimedia)
  • Vision Multimedia Bible – For the Entire Family (1992)(Candlelight Publishing)
  • What Is That? WILD Animals! (1992)(GTE ImagiTrek)
  • World Vista (1992)(Applied Optical Media Corporation)

Cancelled Games:

  • Bake & Taste
  • Easy Street
  • Eco Quest: Search for Cetus
  • Inspector Gadget!
  • Jones in the Fast Lane
  • King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart go Yonder!
  • Laura Bow: The Dagger of Amon Ra
  • Lemmings
  • Loom
  • Mixed-Up Mother Goose
  • Spacenuts
  • Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers
  • The Sleeping Beauty

Reference
Most information comes directly from Frank Durda IV, Senior Project Software Engineer for Tandy how work on the VIS.

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