9/26/15, RETRO VGS - First Update from John 

We’ve promised regular updates on the progress of our product development. I see no reason to wait until after our funding campaign ends. So here we are, nearly a week after our funding campaign began...

I’d like to start my first update by giving a heartfelt thanks to our many loyal fans--especially our backers--and also an apology.

We haven’t been showing you our best work, and there are many reasons why.

The problem is: I can’t patent what I share publicly. As a result, I’ve been protecting my inventions as if they were my own children.

I know this doesn’t seem fair to you, our fans, especially when we ask you to help us fund building our dream system. So, I will be sharing more.

Although I have been reading many online discussions for months, I started chiming in only about a week ago. I’m still getting used to so much public dialogue, as I’m more of a geeky introvert who has been busy designing the RETRO VGS hardware and putting together cost estimates, budgets, timelines, and everything else that goes into managing a major project like this.

At this point, I’d like to try and dispel some of the misinformation that’s out there.

 #1: We know what we’re building. We defined our requirements and architecture months ago, and they haven’t changed. One of the great things about our architecture is that it allows us to adapt our design to even the major changes we’ve seen in the component market, and it allows us to pick and choose the best components as the market changes and as our available funding grows.

For example, one semiconductor vendor (one of my favorites, the one that supplied the CPU that I built a PlayStation around) is now introducing a new generation of CPU and removing support for an old one that looked attractive earlier. The vendor has great parts and they pitched them to us well, but ultimately those parts weren’t the best fit for this product. (Giving them the extra consideration we did also delayed development of our prototype, but the prospect of using the newest part on the market was too good to ignore.)

To include the best parts that we can afford to use based on how much we raise during our funding campaign, we have so far published very few specifications about the internal components. When we have, those specifications have been based on the minimum configuration we would build.

That minimum configuration now includes (and will not be reduced below) a CPU running at least 16,000 DMIPS. That’s a pretty serious piece of hardware, which already makes RETRO VGS compare more closely to a PlayStation 3 than to a Raspberry Pi 2.

Through announcing stretch goals, we have tried to convey that our FPGA can grow in capacity and capability as our funding exceeds our minimum goal. Unfortunately, this seems to have caused some confusion, which we will attempt to clear up as soon as possible.

#2: We have working prototypes. For software, our game developers already have working prototypes and many even already sell finished products that run on classic platforms. For hardware, I just shot a quick video showing a little bit that won’t risk our patent rights. It isn’t much, but it shows our processor communicating via USB and driving simple high-resolution digital and analog video output. Most of our circuits are already in our enclosure, but I still have lots of ribbon cable and hand-wired circuits hanging out the back.

 #3: We didn’t switch to Indiegogo at the last minute. We had all agreed to use Indiegogo at least two weeks before we launched our campaign. (We mention Indiegogo in a video we shot more than a week before launch.) There was a lot to do, and we were slow to get the word out.

 #4: We didn’t switch to Indiegogo because we didn’t have a working prototype.

Kickstarter publishes a rule stating that “Projects that involve the development of physical products must feature explicit demos of working prototypes. While you can run a project focused on the creation of a prototype, you can't offer the product that is under development as a reward.”

Kickstarter clearly lets many current projects slide past this requirement, and they granted us an exception, too. Getting a private exception to this publicly-stated policy seemed deceptive toward backers, and we called them on it. Kickstarter welcomed our project, but wouldn’t change its policy statement to match.

 #5: We don’t need to hit our stretch goals to include an FPGA. Even at our minimum funding goal, RETRO VGS will include an FPGA. Hitting our stretch goals allows us to use larger devices, which just extends what we can do with a system that’s already very impressive.

 #6: We don’t need an FPGA to run software designed to run on classic consoles.

However, new games can use the resources available in RETRO VGS much more efficiently by running natively on our system, without a layer of emulation, whether the emulation is done in hardware or software; higher efficiency means that the game can do more, or at least consume less power while doing it. Emulating classic systems in hardware is also probably the worst use of this great (and expensive) resource; it is much more economical to emulate those systems via software, but we will of course optimize an emulation we do to use the resources we have available.

 #7: We don’t need an outside vendor to supply FPGA cores.

An FPGA is a large programmable logic device. The first time I contributed to the design of a consumer product that shipped with programmable logic was in 1989. Over the next few years, I created many more circuit designs in and around programmable logic devices of increasing sizes. After leaving Iguana Entertainment in the mid 1990s, I spent years designing chips for one of the two largest FGPA makers, which gave me intimate knowledge of the devices. Working there also gave me free access to the company’s best design tools and the people who wrote them; I love the Atari 800, so for fun that was naturally the first thing I started building cores for, with the company’s high-end devices. What were the company’s high-end devices then are only now tapering off the low end of the market, providing amateurs a good place to start. (I have continued to use newer devices since then.)

We thought we had a good vendor to delegate some of our work to and/or from whom we could leverage existing work. Clearly it didn’t work out. Although I’m disappointed by his apparent lack of professionalism, he does good work and I wish him luck in his future endeavors.

 #8: We are going to make adapters that let you play cartridges from older systems.  Yes, it’s true, and it’s going to be awesome. There’s a lot of engineering yet to be done on these (mostly mechanical design and making tools for injection molding plastic) and it’s a relatively low priority for me right now, but we will definitely offer adapters at very affordable prices that allow game cartridges from selected older systems to be played on RETRO VGS.

For example, our “Expansion Module #1” plugs in like a regular cartridge, but it has switches at the top and a slot on the front that will accept and play game cartridges that were made for the Atari VCS (2600/2600A) or Sears Tele-Games system, with potentially enough room under the slot for a wood-grain sticker. When an Atari VCS cartridge is inserted into the front of the adapter, the Atari VCS cartridge sits over the top of the RETRO VGS dome so you can read the end label and the top label, many of which were printed with important information including which number to select for which game and which controller(s) to use. Atari VCS games can be played using RETRO VGS USB controllers or classic 9-pin controllers.

We hadn’t yet posted this on our campaign page, and the word is already out.

With that, I end my first public status report, and thank you for your continued support.

- John Carlsen

RETRO VGS is on Indiegogo Now. Click here to learn more and contribute.