Saturday, January 2, 2016

AUCNET NIA-2001 - Part 2

In the the first part of this article I show the AUCNET NIA-2001 machine and it's specifications. But who's AUCNET and why it needs a MSX?

A bit of archeology

When I started to search about hidden MSX machines, I read a lot of old magazines. Some magazines were MSX related and some related to general computing. The idea was to find the technological trends at the eighties and if some of those trends could be fulfilled using MSX computers.

One "big" thing at those old magazines was the marvellous things that can be done using Laserdiscs. They talk about the amazing graphics, the sound, the capabilities and futures possibilities of the integration between the computers and Laserdisc players.

And I knew that Pioneer did two MSX models that can control Laserdisc players. There is even some MSX games released in Laserdisc format. If you did want to play those games and didn't have one of those Pioneer MSX models, you can buy a separated interface that can be used in any MSX1 computer:

Pioneer PX-7 + LD-7000 (picture from MSX Magazine 1984-07)

So, this was my first target: to find uses for computer controlled Laserdiscs and check if these computers are MSX or MSX based. That approach gave to me two unknown MSX models: Pioneer UC-V102 (I will show this MSX2 in detail in a future post) and, indirectly, the AUCNET NIA-2001.

The first online auction system

AUCNET sells used cars, online, since 1985. The AUCNET's founder was a visionary and wanted to use the new technologies to start a new kind of auction system: people would see pictures of the cars and bid for them using a computer. This way, people could buy used cars from anywhere in Japan, without the need to physically go to where the cars are located.

To make this idea work, people needs to see very good pictures of the cars being auctioned. That's where the Laserdisc enters in the system, the AUCNET representatives goes to the cars and take notes about its conditions and those very good pictures, then the pictures are recorded in a Laserdisc and these Laserdiscs sent to the auction's point-of-sales spread through Japan.

Another important thing in an online auction system is to have all machines synchronized, so the winner bid will always be the only winner. You don't want to be "the winner" and just a few seconds later the auctions system tells that another guy won. To solve that, all the AUCNET's terminals were equiped with modems that talks using PSTN to regional hubs and those send the bids through dedicated lines to the central computer.

Now they only needed a computer to be used as AUCNET terminal, one that could superimpose the Laserdiscs movies with computer generated graphics, could control the Laserdiscs so the correct picture will be shown at the right time and could communicate using a modem. These specifications makes AUCNET terminals good candidates to be hidden MSXs. So they entered in my search list.

Sometime between 1985 and 1989, AUCNET swaps Laserdiscs for satellite broadcast, it's easier and cheaper to reach all the country with high-resolution pictures broadcasting them from space, than recording and sending hundreds of Laserdiscs to hundreds point-of-sales every week. Even with these change in picture's media, the AUCNET terminals were still good candidates to be hidden MSXs, being equiped with superimposer hardware , they only need to change the image source from a Laserdisc player to a satellite receiver.

You can see more about AUCNET in here:

In this video you can see images of AUCNET terminals from 1985 through 2002, NIA-2001 is the one from 1989. I didn't know at that time, but you can see it using the same keyboard of Mitsubishi ML-G30.

AUCNET Terminals from 1989 to 2002, extracted from AUCNET's propaganda.

Another picture of a complete system is this one, again, you can recognise the keyboard:

1989 AUCNET Terminal - picture extracted from "Electronics Intermediaries: Trust Building and Market Differentiation", 1999, by Lee, Ho Geun and Clark, Theodore H.

AUCNET does not sell these terminals, the machines were leased to their dealers and must be returned to be upgraded or if the dealer leaves AUCNET's network. This situation makes those terminals very hard to find. After some time searching, I found one AUCNET terminal for sale, that was the AUCNET NIA-2001 that I have. I did some new researchs and I found images of the 1985 terminal with an well known joystick.

1985 AUCNET Terminal, extracted from AUCNET's propaganda.

The auction's pictures shows one joystick connector at front of NIA and I did suspect that the slot at back was MSX compatible. So, I taken my chances and bought this terminal.

Only some months later, when the machine arrived from Japan,  I could see that it was, indeed, an MSX and, even better, a new MSX TurboR machine. This discovery starts a lot of new research and speculation...

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