PlayCable: Cable Comes Alive!

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PlayCable Announcement from Electronic Games Magazine (1982)

Talk about innovation! In 1981, Mattel finalized a deal to deliver Intellivision games to homes across the nation via existing cable TV networks. Just call your local cable provider and request PlayCable!

It just so happens that the company that developed the Intellivision chipset, General Instrument (GI), also conveniently happened to be involved in the cable industry already. Their Jerrold division, as far as I can tell, is, to this day, still involved in producing cable converters. It does appear that Motorola now owns GI, though. Jerrold's identity is less clear.

So, with such close ties to the cable industry already from the hardware side, is it surprising that someone noticed that this would be a really cool idea? The system worked by dedicating a channel that 'broadcast' the game data. A special add-on peripheral, the PlayCable unit, could decode the game catalog (updated monthly) and 'download' the games to the Master Component. The unit was designed to fit snugly against the Master Component, and had the same burnished bronze and wood grain finish.

The Intellivision Library contains many useful images of PlayCable materials, including scans of the entire user manual, the flyer (also shown below), and numerous images of the hardware.

The Intellivision Gumbo site has been kind enough to allow me to use the images of a PlayCable flyer for this site. So, here it is! Note the prominence of the number 16 on the back page. A rather humorous error here: a 16K microprocessor? Hmm, perhaps they meant 16 bit? After all, the PlayCable itself was limited in that it could only store games up to 4K in size. This was one of the factors that led to its demise, according to the Intellivision Productions folks.

PlayCable Flyer (Front)

PlayCable Flyer: Front

PlayCable Flyer (Center)

PlayCable Flyer: Center

PlayCable Flyer (Back)

PlayCable Flyer: Back

PlayCable Flyer (Games - left half)

PlayCable Flyer: Games (left half)

PlayCable Flyer (Games - right half)

PlayCable Flyer: Games (right half)

PlayCable Flyer (Detail)

PlayCable Flyer
(images courtesy of the Intellivision Gumbo Website)

In addition to flyers, special versions of game manuals were also printed and sent to customers. To store the manuals and, presumably, overlays, a box was provided. It should be expected that some kind of service manual existed, and possibly other documentation or packaging. Anyone who finds such materials and is willing to share information or images, please send a message!

PlayCable Unit with Master Component

PlayCable Unit with Master Component

As mentioned previously, the PlayCable unit was modeled after the original Master Component in its appearance. It also has its own internal transformer to step down 120V AC. I haven't probed the guts of my unit yet to see what voltages it produces. Given the information from the BSRs, one can also conclude that there's a ROM containing the program loader software as well as some kind a demodulator used to decode the software data from the TV signal - similar in concept to how our cable modems work today, but without the ability to upload data.

The Question of Packaging Variants

There are two images showing what the PlayCable unit's shell looked like. Both the 'Jerrold' and 'General Instrument' units are known to exist. The Jerrold version is also the unit pictured in an Electronic Games article. The Blue Sky Rangers and the flyer shown above display the GI edition. Is one more difficult to find than the other? (Is that like asking whether a hen's incisor is rarer than a hen's canine?) Were the units packaged differently over the lifespan of the project, or in different regions of the country? Anyone with any information on the different units and logos please drop an e-mail!

PlayCable Unit (Jerrold / GI logo)

Jerrold and GI logo
Was this the standard logo?
(note the GI logo)

PlayCable Unit (General Instrument logo)

General Instrument logo
PlayCable logo variant
(image courtesy of the Blue Sky Rangers at Intellivision Productions)

Someone had to do it... Oh, what could have been! If only I had the brown ECS to have a consistent cosmetic appearance... Just imagine - add upload capabilities to the PlayCable and you could use your ECS to load and share your own programs across a network via the cassette player! Or, hook this up to the real Keyboard Component and you've even got programmatic control over the cassette! The 1149 could act as your server! Yeah!

On an unrelated note... It sure would have been cool to see the Intellivoice and ECS released in the 2609 packaging style, as the PlayCable was. Now that would look cool!

Someday, I hope to take some pictures of the guts and post them, too.

PlayCable Unit with Master Component

PlayCable Unit with Master Component, Intellivoice, and ECS

Not only was the PlayCable unit a nifty hardware device - it also contained software act as the program loader. Here are a few questions and theories about just what that software might have done. I hope someone out there can answer them...

  1. How did game selection really work? My Theory (ALL conjecture):
    1. Upon power-on or hardware reset, PlayCable game loader loads and receives catalog
    2. After receiving catalog, game loader waits for user to select title
    3. After title selected, game loader waits for game to download, storing it in its 4K RAM buffer
    4. After download complete, a flag is set (somewhere) that game has successfully downloaded
    5. Game loader executes a 'soft' reset
    6. Game loader program loads; after a soft reset, the 'game ready' flag causes the program to jump to the memory location storing the game, and that's what the Intellivision sees as the running program
    This little theory is probably rife with errors, but I think conceptually, something like this is what's going on. One thing that's not clear is whether games that bypassed the EXEC would work.
  2. If someone had made a videotape of the PlayCable channel using a VCR, would it have successfully captured the entire signal? If so, could you then play back said tape through a VCR today and get the game?
  3. What were all of the games ever made available on PlayCable? We do know that they all were 4K games.
  4. What kind of hardware did the cable provider need to 'broadcast' the games?
  5. How were new sets of games delivered to the cable provider?

Since the PlayCable channel has long since bit the dust, we can't get nice screen shots of what the game selection software looks like. (Is there a nifty emu project there?) Here are some screen shots of what you get with a PlayCable unit today. I did not hook the unit up to my cable line. As is the case with the System Changer, you get a default screen if the service isn't available.

PlayCable 'CATALOG' Screen (photo)

This image was created by just taking a picture of the screen with a digital camera. The background color is due to low light conditions, a low-end camera, and inexperience in photography.

PlayCable 'CATAOG' Screen (capture)

This image was created using an ATI TV Wonder VE board.

Electronic Games Magazine, Volume 1 Number 2, 1982
The official Intellivision Lives web site's PlayCable page
The Intellivision FAQ PlayCable topic