Micron Eye camera

The birth of a crucial technology

Video conferencing has been crucial during the COVID-19 crisis. It has enabled us to conduct business meetings, teach lessons, and stay in touch with family and friends. At a time when we must be physically separated, video conferencing has helped us stay connected.

It’s a technology with a long history, and it’s one that I talk about in my novel Amiga.

The novel describes a device called the MicronEye Camera:

The closest thing we could find to a computer-based camera was a device called a MicronEye Camera. It looked like an ordinary camera with a lens affixed to the center of a box that was mounted on a tripod. The camera was tethered to the computer by an RS-232 serial cable. The product came with software, but none of it was for the Amiga. The only version we could run out of the box was on Peter’s Commodore 64. We would have to write our own drivers and control software, but we had already planned to do that.

The device can capture a 128 x 256-pixel monochrome image. Here’s what my picture would look like at 128 pixels wide.

Getting the image into the computer was a challenge. You installed drivers and control software on the computer, and there was a different set for each computer the device supported. The RS-232 port had to be configured correctly to communicate with the device. (USB ports with plug and play wouldn’t be out for another ten years.) The camera had a number of manual settings that had to be configured. The MicronEye Camera user guide has an entire section about optics and lighting to get the clearest image. There wasn’t much you can do with the image once you captured it. Most computers at the time didn’t have enough processing power and RAM for editing and video capture.

The MicronEye Camera was more of a novelty or development tool than a practical camera. Still, it was cool seeing your picture on a computer.

We’ve come along way from a box with a lens that was plugged into a desktop computer to that barely noticeable dot above your smartphone or laptop screen that captures your face in high-resolution color. But it was those early devices that introduced new technology and showed what we can do with it.

As you meet with your colleagues who are working at home or chat with friends and family, think about the engineers who first envisioned this technology and the pioneering devices they created decades ago.