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ZX Spectrum Revolution
Friday, 15 June 2007

I previously wrote an article about the 25 year anniversary of the IBM PC and how this brought something revolutionary to the mainstream. However, for the enthusiast, this article about the ZX Spectrum is probably easier to relate to, whether you actually owned a ZX Spectrum or perhaps another early 8-bit home computer such as a Commodore64 or Atari 8-bit. I remember one of my early computer interfacing projects was in fact using Qbasic under DOS on a 286 PC - to control an SPO256 speech synth. Although, I owned a Commodore64 a long time before that and tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to interface various electronics such as robot arms to it in my younger years.

Like many robot enthusiasts I've often built my own mechanical hardware for robotics projects. My original intention with robotics as an adult was to become a better programmer, but for a long time I've been stuck trying to build a reliable robot to program, rather than concentrating on making it do anything vaguely intelligent.

However, for the first time about a week ago I sat down with the 914 .NET components, read through the sample code and had a serious go with C# .NET 2005 Express. I've previously programmed mostly in Python which I still intend to do for my 914, however I'd really like to be able to do this under Windows as well as Linux. The task I set myself therefore, is to write an interface to Python using the .NET controls - which will likely be in the form of a sockets server I can attach to from a Python script, or any programming language that supports sockets.

From a personal learning point of view, of course it's much easier to learn to program a robot if you have one that's ready built to commercial quality standards, rather than having to build the hardware yourself first. This is particularly relevant for research projects where the focus is on software rather than hardware.

There are of course many people out there who are already programmers in various languages, particularly in .NET, but the majority of them have probably not programmed robots before. In the same way that the ZX Spectrum brought accessibility for people to learn programming and general computer skills all those years ago, accessibility to affordable robots running familiar operating systems provides a tipping point towards mainstream robotics, utilizing skills sets that are already out there. From a personal point of view, that other 914 owners can probably relate to, having a 914 is incredibly motivating towards spending time making it do something - mainly it's an amazing thing to see in real life, photos just don't do it justice.

Now, I know that the ZX Spectrum was a lot cheaper than the 914, and I've heard various opinions that the 914 is 'too expensive for enthusiasts'. However, let's consider what an enthusiast is. My friend is a Harley Davidson enthusiast, needless to say his Harley cost him far more than the price of a 914. Consider the classic car enthusiasts, musicians, or even mountain bikers - all of these things which are mostly people's hobbies can cost a small fortune to do, often just for the weekends. These are serious enthusiasts and as such don't mind spending serious money on what they enjoy. I'm a member of the DeLorean owners club, but I don't actually own a DeLorean - so if you really can't run to buying your own 914, then of course you can still be an enthusiast - it's a revolution!.

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