Nov 21, 2019
The BBC Domesday Project, completed in 1986, is a lot of things. Broken up into two LaserDiscs is a massive volunteer-collected survey of Britain, graphable and searchable census data, high resolution maps, and virtualized 3D tours of selected locations. The entire project blurs the line between time capsule and tech demo. Out of all of the varied media that makes up the Domesday Project my favorite part has to be the "Domesday Gallery".
The Domesday Project was distributed on two discs: the Community and National Discs. The Community Disc was comprised of volunteer survey data consisting of images and writings collected from school children and volunteer groups. This made up a view of "Britain by the British", so to speak. The National Disc was the BBC-curated view of the country and was made up of numeric data, images, short videos, and virtual tours(think Google street view) of parts of the country, called "surrogate walks". The Domesday Gallery was the first thing you saw when loading the National Disc, and it served as an interactive menu for that section of the project.
To access content on the disc users would walk around the figure 8 shaped virtual gallery. Hanging on the walls were images that users could approach, view, and pull up more information about. Also along the walls of the gallery were doors that took users to the aforementioned surrogate walks, making the gallery a sort of "hub" for users to step into other virtual spaces. For 1986 technology this is all pretty impressive. The computer used for the Domesday Project is a BBC Master, an 8-bit microcomputer with 512 Kb of RAM. It's not a powerful machine by any means, so how was it able to display a virtual world? Well, it comes down to some tricks, and a lot of pre-rendered graphics.
The computer itself acted as a glorified controller for an accompanying LaserDisc player. The LaserDiscs used for Domesday were in a custom format(LV-ROM) that stored analog images along side a separate digital data track. The magic comes down to that analog track. Higher resolution images were stored as analog data, and the computer could switch the LaserDisc player to any given image on the disc. Then when a user was navigating the gallery or a surrogate walk the computer just had to figure out which image corresponded to the user's current location and display it from the LaserDisc. The images for surrogate walks were, of course, just pictures. The Domesday Gallery part of the disc was built up using pre-rendered 3D graphics.
So how was the Domesday Gallery rendered? Most of the software for the Domesday Project was written by Logica, a UK based IT firm. They also handled 3D modeling and rendering of the Domesday Gallery. Logica's tool of choice for creating the gallery was a Bosch FGS-4000. And, well, that's where things get a little muddy.
There isn't much information about the FGS-4000 online. The machine is probably best known for being used to render the music video for Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing", but outside of that it seems pretty obscure. I've been able to find sample images and videos produced on the system, forum posts, and one ad for the machine from Bosch themselves. As near as I can tell the FGS-4000 was part of a range of stand-alone 3D modeling systems built around the Motorola 68000 CPU with some kind of custom graphics hardware. There are a few images floating around of the computer's console(like in the ad), but I haven't been able to track down a picture of the whole system. I'd be interested to learn more about the system, but until then I'll have to mark it down as one more mystery surrounding the BBC's Domesday Project.
To learn more about the Domesday Project, you can listen to my episode on the topic: