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CanWest story on Bruce Damer and the DigiBarn

Charles Mandell of the CanWest News service called DigiBarn Curator Bruce Damer in early January for a story on what this wayward Canadian is doing in the misty redwoods above Silicon Valley. The interview went well and he published this wonderful story, which appeared in newspapers and online services across Canada on January 5, 2006.

Scan of Montreal Gazette story (photo only) as published via Canwest new services.

Full Text of the Story

Memory palace for nerds a shrine to '80s heyday

Charles Mandel, For CanWest News Service
Published: Thursday, January 05, 2006

Ataris, Apples, Commodores, KayPros, and a couple of Cray supercomputers fill a 90-year-old barn nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains of northern California. Aside from a few resident pigs in stalls downstairs, it's jammed with once state-of-the-art systems, rendered obsolete except for their historical computing value. The prototypes, homemade systems and just plain outdated technology housed at the DigiBarn Computer Museum in Boulder Creek, Calif., rivals collections anywhere. Owner and curator Bruce Damer started the project to capture the personal stories and track technological evolution through the large collection of vintage computer systems, manuals, interviews, and ``other fossil relics of the 'Cambrian explosion' of personal computing in 1975.''

Raised in Kamloops, B.C., and a former student at the University of Victoria, Damer calls the museum ``a memory palace for the nerd-inclined.'' The software engineer says he wants to piece together the history of what he believes is the most important invention of the 20th century. ``In 50 years, all of the people who were there will be gone and there has to be something left behind for people to understand how it all happened,'' Damer says. "That's what this project is all about.''

Dag Spicer, senior curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., calls the DigiBarn one of the top private collections in the United States. ``There are a lot of interesting prototypes,'' says Spicer, who adds the DigiBarn's focus on Apple computers in particular is one of the collection's strong points.

While the DigiBarn's physical location attracts only a couple hundred people annually, the museum flourishes in cyberspace, drawing millions of visitors to www.digibarn.com.

As a student in Kamloops in 1981, Damer recalls seeing in a magazine an early computer Xerox developed called the Alto. (Bruce note: actually it was the Xerox Star 8010 I saw) "It was the kind of machine everybody looked at and said, `Oh my goodness, this is the future.''' As it turned out, Damer's future would be tied to personal computing. He went to graduate school in Los Angeles and then worked as a software engineer for a small company subsequently invited to create ``a Xerox look-and-feel work station that would run on a standard PC.'' Creating the windows, icons and applications from scratch, Damer became interested in the history of computing. As he delved into Xerox's background, he discovered they'd done a poor job of preserving their own history. The company had tossed most of its own hardware, so Damer began collecting it from people he knew in the Silicon Valley. ``Garages would open up and there would be all this wonderful stuff somebody in their late 60s was ordered by their wife to dump. 'Get rid of this stuff. We're moving to a condo.' Instead of it going to a landfill, I took it in.''

Damer bought his ranch with the barn in 1998, officially christening it the DigiBarn in 2001. Besides computer systems, the DigiBarn contains everything from T-shirts to business plans to some of Apple's earliest proprietary documentation. Damer has also concentrated on Apple prototypes because of his friendship with some of the company's earliest founders and employees through their shared love of "home-brewed," homemade computer systems. In November, Damer hosted the 30th anniversary of the renowned Homebrew Computer Club, whose members include Apple Computer founder Steve Wozniak. The collection includes the prototype for the portable Macintosh. ``People who worked at Apple came and gave it and said, 'We can't bear to throw this away. Here it is,''' Damer remembers.

While Digibarn consumes Damer's time he says the sheer volume of e-mail has taken over his life he still works for a living. Damer is considered the world's leading expert on avatars, the representation of people in two-dimensional and three-dimensional worlds. His company, DigitalSpace Commons, creates multi-user, three-dimensional platforms for NASA that allows the space agency to simulate operating Rovers on the moon, for example. Damer compares the platform to a video game, but with the addition of physics, so the Rovers slide down crater walls and mimic other actions.

Damer creates most of his simulations using open-source software that he envisions posting on the web and allowing others to use to create a shared, three-dimensional environment through which people could surf. Already, interns at the University of Washington and the University of Southern California are experimenting with the software. Damer believes it will be more widely available by year-end.

As for the future of personal computing, Damer predicts more technology will show up on our bodies. He's already designed garments to hold iPods, cellphones and PDAs. "It's all going to be about light-weight, thin, flat interfaces that you carry around, that fold and roll up.'' He says Apple is leading the way, pushing everyone toward mobile devices. "Every year they're going to make another announcement and there will be a cloud of new devices as they leave the personal computer field and enter the mobile (devices area). This is the true rival of the personal computer because it's on your person."

Online references to the story

Click here to get full PDF image version of the text of the story.

Link to Saskatoon StarPhoenix version of the story

Link to Vancouver Sun version of the story

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