When I woke up today, I had no idea what a Memorex Video Information System was or that such a device ever existed. Had you shown up at my house to inform me of such a product, I’d have reacted with utter confusion and then told you to get out of my messy abode. Seriously, what were you thinking?
But oh how quickly things can change! Just a few hours after waking up (I won’t tell you when I woke up, but it was probably unacceptably late), I found myself at Goodwill, as I so often do. I waltzed out with an old piece of local glassware (does anyone remember Welch’s Saloon of Akron?) and a two-VHS Godzilla set I didn’t really need but actually kinda did.
Found during the same visit was what appeared to be an old CD player, shoved on their electronics shelf and with a big $4 price scrawled on it in annoyingly-thick grease marker. An introductory glance revealed that this was indeed a CD-based contraption, but something called a “VIS.” Clearly a closer inspection and look-up on my phone was warranted and granted. Turns out this was something called the “Memorex Video Information System.”
It was neat, it was interesting, and yet, I didn’t buy it!
Nope, I actually checked out with my treasures and went home sans VIS. I only had a few bucks on me anyway. I’d gotten the VIS bug though, and as soon as I got home, I did a bit more research, realized I had passed on a pretty rare item, grabbed some more money, and made a really hasty retreat back to Goodwill. There the VIS still sat, seemingly untouched by anyone since I had been bothering it probably less than an hour before. And so, here we are.
It looks like a cross between a VCR and a garden-variety CD player of the period, dunnit?
The Memorex Video Information System was actually a Tandy/Radio Shack innovation, originally releasing in 1992 and operating in the same “interactive multimedia” wheelhouse as the CD-i but evidently flopping far worse than that thing ever did (which is really saying something). It probably wasn’t really a video game system – I’m not sure any legitimate video games were even made for this – but it did originally come with video game-like wireless controllers (I looked, and they were nowhere to be found; I imagine they were loooong gone before this showed up at Goodwill).
It seems that the majority of software releases focused more on “edutainment” titles (*shudder*), but still, I find the CD-i (and Commodore CDTV) comparisons intriguing. I collect obscure gaming and gaming-related things like this, and when it comes to the early-1990s, the VIS is an obscurity of the highest order. Like I said, I had no inkling of such a thing existing beforehand.
Wikipedia has an informative entry on it, and according to them it retailed for a whopping $699 (!!), sold only 11,000 units (!!!), and ran on a modified version of Windows 3.1. There were actual VIS discs created for this thing; I’m not sure if it will run any regular PC games of the era or not, but I’m guessing that it won’t.
Look, it’s basically a circa-1992 computer in a console-ish shell and with its own brand of discs to run, not unlike the original Xbox except nobody owned the VIS (relatively speaking, I mean).
As you can see above, the front of the unit is pretty minimalist; only power and disc drawer open/close buttons are immediately evident.
But look here: a little slidey panel on the bottom-right reveals a few more options. Here’s where the cartridge input is located, though to what extent software was found in cartridge form for the VIS, I cannot say. Also, microphone and headphone inputs and a volume control, because hey, it was 1992. The headphone jack and volume knob are self-explanatory, but I can’t fathom what a microphone would be needed for here. Did this thing do some kind of recording? Or did something on the VIS beat Hey You, Pikachu! to the punch by several years?
The only other aspect of the front that ‘does’ anything is, needless to say, the CD drawer. It, uh, opens and closes. Unlike my roughly-10-years-old Blu-ray player, the drawer of the pushing-30-years-old Video Information System opens and closes pretty fast and smoothly. Hey, for 700 bucks, you’d sure hope some lastin’ quality would be built-in!
(I’m not sure how well my pictures show it, but this particular VIS unit was in exceptionally good shape. Of course I have no way of knowing how much use it did or didn’t get back in the day, but it appears to have been well-maintained.)
Since I have neither software nor controllers for the VIS, what I can and can’t do with it is pretty limited. (Go figure!) Still, being a CD-based electronic, there are ways of testing it beyond merely plugging it in and seeing if the power light comes on.
Well, that’s a good sign! At least I get a start-up screen upon pressing power! I wish I could insert a disc or cartridge, VIS. One made specifically for you, I mean.
Now, I’ve got a ton of old PC games in my collection, but only so many within the immediate vicinity. As such, the copy of Mad Dog McCree I picked up fairly recently and thus was still in said immediate vicinity became my test subject. I questioned whether the VIS would run it or not, though even if it did, I had no way of actually playing it.
It was a moot point however, since the game wouldn’t run. I guess I didn’t seriously expect it to, but there was a small hope nevertheless.
I could have called it quits right there and been satisfied; it’s not like I’d be throwing such a rare item out even if it was entirely nonfunctional anyway, but the fact that it powered up and gave me a starting screen was enough for me to label this find a full-fledged cool winnin.
Still, I wouldn’t be an efficient time waster if I didn’t research just a bit further, so like I did with the Kodak Photo CD thing I babbled about a million years ago, I grabbed an audio CD I had lying about and loaded it up.
Not only did I get a specific “CD player” screen, but the VIS automatically started the disc playing! Obviously I had no way of skipping tracks or pausing or what have you, but for the brief time I had music going, it sounded really nice, and without any skipping/distorting. Pretty cool for something some 27-years-old! That’s not to say the entire disc would have played flawlessly; who knows how the VIS would have operated once really heating up or something, but in this day and age, is it even important? Maybe if I could play games (“games”) it would be, but as it stands, I’m labeling this all “good enough.”
So in summation, a trip (well, two trips) to Goodwill netted me a pretty cool piece of early-90s tech. The Memorex Video Information System was quite a failure for Radio Shack, though in just the brief time I’ve had it, I’ve read several different viewpoints on just how long it was on shelves. I suppose it doesn’t really matter; if the 11,000 units figure is correct, man, that’s like nothin’. (For the record: there’s no actual date on mine, so I’m going with a generic “1992” notation here, as seen in the title of this post.)
I wish I could give a better demonstration of VIS’ abilities. I can’t, but luckily, Gamester81 has an excellent video review of it that gives you a far better idea of how this thing operated.
I have no illusions of ever coming across controllers and/or software for the VIS, but hey, you never know what you’ll come across later in the day when you first wake up!
Still, for now I’ve got the system, and that’s enough. It kinda has to be, you know?
(And before anyone asks, no this is not for sale!)