LOOkiNG BACk: WhAT iS VERSAWRiTER?
GARY MATTESON (AkA "ThE WAGON MASTER"), AC STAff REViEWER
VersaWriter Versus The Alchemist
A couple years ago, a former Atari dealer unexpectedly offered me (for a price) a few boxes of various and sundry Atari 8-bit pieces, parts, software and some stuff not all of which I have identified. So I asked my friend, The 8-Bit Alchemist, the question constituting the title of this article, in the hope he might shed some light on this mysterious contraption I had inherited, called VersaWriter. Before much time had passed the Master 8-Bitter conceded he didn't know what a VersaWriter is and was unable to learn anything about it.
[Editor's Note: Well, that's not quite true. Initially I didn't recognize what the thing was, though Gary's description of it struck me vaguely familiar. I sent an e-mail inquiry to Bob Brodie at Atari Corp. and received a bizarre response: he claimed VersaWriter was an Atari product that had been released in Europe, information obviously furnished to him by the Looney Crew at Sunnyvale! I communicated that to Gary but continued searching the Alchemist Archives until eventually I located some literature on the thing- complete with prices- even sending Gary some xeroxes of the precious yellow parchment in my files which is also reproduced in the graphic accompanying this article... uh-oh. Now I've done it. My secret identity and dark past are revealed. Yes, Dear Reader, your Managing Editor is in fact The 8-Bit Alchemist, formerly 8 -Bit Editor and Columnist in Current Notes Magazine, nefarious hacker of 8-bit hardware. Especially the machines analog circuits, which all the digital pundits ignore... . BP]
Gemstone? Or Just Stone?
John Denver sang the song "Some Days are Diamonds (Some Days are Stone)". The truth is, with VersaWriter-which I'll henceforth refer to as VW- my first thought was I had found both diamond and stone. It appeared to be brand-spanking new, nested in its original box and packing, with a manual and original disk! Sitting in my thinking chair, gazing at it, I thought it very unlikely the original software (v1.2, 1981) could have survived 10+ years on the shelf. No way is this going to work, all I have is a stone, an unusual piece of hardware, useful only as an artifact for museum display. The software can't possibly be intact... but- as I discovered to my amazement- it was, and I happily completed a sector copy of the original disk. That done, I connected the hardware to port 3 of my Atari 800 as instructed and then started the autoboot operation.
The original VW software is a single sided, non-copy protected disk having 000 free space left on it, I wondered what had been left out to make that happen. I wasn't surprised the VW disk had no copy protection, clearly, the program is useless without the necessary hardware.
The VersaWriter Reference Manual (c) February 1981, explains what this strange contraption is: "VersaWriter is a digitizer board and software system that allows quick entry of graphics on the Atari (using a) High or Medium resolution screen." No less true today than in 1981, the manufacturer (Versa Computing) points out, "We should save our work frequently. All work is saved as either .PI7 or.PI8."
The VW hardware consists of a white plastic "drawing board" that measures 12" vertically and 13.5" horizontally; a clear mylar cover lies over the drawing area. Fixed to the top of the drawing board is a device that looks like a draftsman's tool. Centered on the stout plastic board (it's about 1/4" thick) is a cylindrical, pivoting housing containing a potentiometer. A sturdy-looking 6" long arm is mounted to it, and attached to the other end of this arm is another pivot containing a second internal "pot".
Another, although much lighter 6" arm, is connected to this pivot. The second arm has a 50-cent piece sized clear lens at the end with a small black opaque dot in the center. As a unit, the digitizer definitely qualifies to be called: delicate. Digitizers had already been successfully used with other high level computers of the time, so I easily recognized this hardware as a very clever adaptation for the Atari 400/800. Please note, I said other high level computers.
By Golly, It Works!
Before VW can be used, a necessary one-time calibration must be done. The calibration allows the main program to "know" where the 90, 180, 270 and 0/360 degree points are. Those values are then written to the VW working disk. This also establishes a direct relationship between the cursor and the drawing lens.
Having completed the initial set-up, I could start drawing my masterpieces: first an outline of the beautiful State of Nebraska, with a screen of commentary! Another reading of the manual suggested this wan't a good place to begin. VW isn't geared toward freehand picture drawing. Rather, it's for tracing pictures or diagrams of any kind that already exist. You place your original under the mylar cover and then trace or copy it using the dot in the dear lens. The drawing tools utilize four colors (the fourth is the background and is switchable using "B".)
In the drawing toolbox are "X" and "Y" DRAW to draw straight vertical or horizontal lines, "Z" DRAW WITH PAINT BRUSH and "A" DRAW WITH THE AIR BRUSH. The AIRBRUSH accesses and uses the colors differently from the PAINT BRUSH; the result of the approach used yields more flexibility in the drawing. For instance, on choosing the AIRBRUSH, the user might be queried: (draw) White on Black or Black on White? The single command "E" for erasing works with all the tools. Other tools are: color fill "closed figures", draw with fixed X or Y coordinates.
Recentering of the current cursor position on the monitor is possible if your original artwork is off-center. Screen editing, a Help screen and other useful tools are provided. Finished or not, the background color of a picture can be changed or switched to "inverse". Closed parts within the picture can have the color changed, or the whole picture can be "inversed".
Text may added to pictures created by VW, any mix of the standard Atari font or the three included fonts is permitted: Computer, Atari Stylised, and Greek, upper/lower case, and inverse. Want a different font? Not to worry. Other fonts may be imported, such as those generated by the IRIDIS Fontedit program.
Scaling is possible, even advisable. On a scale of 0-4, 2 is 2X the size of your original, or .25 = 1/4 the size of the original. To smooth out the inevitable squigglies, a 0-5 level of "smoothing" can be applied, which enabled me to make a pretty good outline of my state, Nebraska. Yup, I did it! (A map helped.)
Pretty Decent Software
Most all VW commands are single key operations. The programmers did a very credible job with all aspects of the program. Written in BASIC, the program is stable and doesn't "crash" unexpectedly. Although this is a robust program, the user is warned to never to press BREAK or SYSTEM RESET, the loss of some or all your unsaved picture may be the price. Accuse me of nit-picking if you will, but I was surprised those points weren't managed through error trapping software to create a "safety net" to prevent any action if those keys are accidently pushed. Surely it's simple matter to disable at least the BREAK key. The single key "Q" command allows a clean Quit back to BASIC.
The manual addresses all of the program functions in a clear, concise manner with full but separate explanations for High and Low resolution modes (there are differences between the two). The VW manual also includes a memory map. How many programs have you seen that do that?
Included on the disk is a companion program called VWPICLD, which is meant to be copied to and distributed with your saved picture files. Versa Computing understood that without a program to "show" the files, we couldn't share our creations with friends. You can save up to ten pictures per SS/SD disk. I was disappointed to learn there wasn't any provision for printing the picture files. Perhaps a future software modification or seperate program was in the works, but we may never know. I have an Atari XDM-121 daisy wheel printer anyway, so I'm unable to check whether any other program can access the disk and print the pictures.
Versa Computing provided a registration form which indicates to me they intended to fully support this product; extra space is provided for suggestions and ideas from users. I feel certain some of these would have been incorporated to either upgrade the then current software or provide avenues for future developement of new VW software. I sense Versa Computing's optimism was genuine, but at a suggested price of $299 in 1983, I believe the product was overpriced, making it un-supportable. I'm otherwise unable to account for its failure to catch on.
For a "very early in the life of Atari" product, this is a very good one. Both the precision drawing instrument and the program exude quality throughout. Versa Computing's claim to plot one of 61,000 screen points and resolving angles to 2/10 of a degree, impresses me. I have neither the expertise nor the tools to test the claim, but I have accepted it as true.
Now to answer the question over which I crossed paths with that Alchemist so long ago: What is VersaWriter? First, it's a duplicating tool. A steady hand is a valuable but not totally necessary asset because some help is built into the program to disguise the fact you don't have one. Second, for the Atari, VersaWriter certainly is an original, high quality tool and it really works. The implimentation of VersaWriter on the Atari 800 had to have vastly exceeded the expectations of those early users of the Classic Atari computer. It only to proves once again something most Atarians know: our 8-bit is an extraodinary and powerful computer. I would think VW would have worked with the other Atari 8-Bit computers, however I'm unable to test the notion. [Editor's Note: I don't think it would, at least not without some modification to the software. The XL/XE machines don't have joystick ports 3 and 4 like the 800 has. BP]
Should VersaWriter be in a museum? Probably. It's a very rare piece of hardware. Although it's not for sale, I might consider donating it to a museum someday. Especially if the display were designed show originality; to show how computers developed and grew; to demonstrate how programmers and developers (unrelated to the original manufacturer) influenced and expanded the way we used our computers. I guess I'm dreaming; if there's ever to be any museum, likely it will be at my house. Perhaps you've heard the expression, "One good antique deserves another".
I would like to hear from anyone who has higher versions of the software or who has hardware additions or differences. Please write to me c/o Atari Classics. I'm not going to hold my breath even though the serial number on my VersaWriter (#4019) suggests many of these were produced. Well, gotta go, I think I hear Rod Serling calling... . Happy trails to you!
[Alchemist's Comment: In tekkie parlance, this device is what would be called a "pantograph": Versa Writer is in fact the deluxe version of another unit manufactured by Versa Computing called the Versa Writer Tablet, which appears to have been a product akin to the Atari Touch Tablet. Versa released, as a stand-alone product, a program called Graphics Composer that seems to have consisted of the Versa Writer software with some added drawing features but still lacking a print utility. A very long time ago I almost bought a VW from a guy who didn't know what it was. At that time I didn't know what it was either, so I walked away. Now I would kill for one. It looks like an ideal tool for anyone wishing to digitize electronic schematics, architectural diagrams, etc. Very rarely they turn up at swap meets. Extremely useful gadget, especially if the software is fleshed out with a print utility. BP]