In the 21st Century, it’s hard to imagine an audiovisual presentation system without a computer, but twenty-five years ago, when 35mm slide presentations and overhead projectors ruled the earth, the simple act of connecting a computer to a video projector was a brand new challenge. This invitation was answered by a handful of inventive young engineers who discovered a market need and jumped on it with fervor, not knowing where it would take them.
One of these pioneers was Jack Gershfeld, current CEO of ALTINEX, Inc., a company that continues to provide innovative signal management solutions to the audio visual presentation industry. Considered by many to be “The Godfather” of computer video interfacing technology, Jack recalls the early days:
“In 1981, I was working as an engineer at Conrac, a manufacturer of high performance broadcast and specialty CRT monitors. IBM had recently introduced a PC with a TTL video output (CGA) and I was asked by Dan Fili on the marketing team whether it would be possible to convert this output to be compatible with Conrac monitors. I designed and built a prototype that was…well, rudimentary at best, but it accomplished the task. At the time, I approached the President of Conrac with the idea of offering this type of solution, but Conrac did not want to focus on this market, so I continued working on it as a side project after hours.
“Together with Dan Fili, I started a company called Epsilon Engineering. Before a final product had even been designed, we placed a small advertisement for this TTL to RGB solution in a trade magazine for the monitor industry just to see if there was any need for it out there. The very first call we got was from Hoffman Video Systems (a company that still buys interfaces from ALTINEX today). To our surprise, Hoffman wasn’t the only company looking for this solution and we were soon deluged with orders for this product.
Now that we had orders, we had to manufacture something. The first products were called the RGB100 and RGB101. They were also known as the “Blue Boxes” since they were enclosed in those generic plastic blue boxes you could get at Radio Shack.
In fact, all of the parts for the first 300-piece production run were purchased at Radio Shack.
The salespeople at the Buena Park store thought we were nuts when we asked them for 300 Boxes; they normally only carry 2 or 3.The Boxes had a 9-pin D male connector with a 6” cable on one side that accepted the digital TTL signal from an IBM PC, and 4 BNC connectors on the other side outputting an analog RGBS signal format which allowed it to be used with monitors and projectors. The RGB100 simply passed the signal through, while the RGB101 came with a Y-type input cable that allowed us to also feed the signal to a local TTL-compatible computer monitor. These first products sold for $69.95 each.
After selling the first 300 units, I stopped working at Conrac and focused all of my energies on this new computer video interface business. The products continued to sell, but not quite in the quantities we had hoped. Dan Fili and I agreed to split the company half-and-half and go our separate ways. We literally each had a pile of papers that we split up between us. Even despite these setbacks, my family continued to support me. With help from my father and $1000 cash, I leased a 600-square-foot office and started a company called Extron Electronics. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Needless to say, the market has changed quite a bit since then. Customers now have numerous options to choose from and Computer video interfaces have moved beyond just making the system work. At ALTINEX, we have made several evolutionary steps, including introducing the first wall-mount integrated interface (with the VA6855WM), introducing the first line of aesthetically appealing wall-mount interfaces (the INTERA System), and introducing the first line of tabletop interconnect solutions (the Pop ‘N Plug and Tilt ‘N Plug Series products). We are always looking to solve our customers’ challenges and are always looking for new ways of doing things that have never been thought of before. So, in some ways, things are very different and in other ways, they are very still the same.
“In the larger picture, this industry is very young. We expect to continue to be a guiding force of innovation for many years to come and, just like in the early days, I intend to be at the front of it.”
If you also have an early-pioneer story, if you knew Jack from this era, or if you (by some miracle) still have one of these original “Blue Boxes,” please drop Jack a note at email@example.com. He’d love to hear from you!