Digital vault to rescue space invadersPlan to save old technologies for posterity

11 February 2009

UK researchers are part of a bold rescue plan to preserve information about vanishing technology and cultural information about a generation brought up in a digital age.

Portsmouth University plans to build an emulator, a piece of software which can recognise and play or open all previous types of computer files from 1970s Space Invaders games to three-inch floppy discs. Other emulators exist which are specific to certain platforms or types of media but the new version will be able to emulate media in any format.

The European project, KEEP (Keeping Emulation Environments Portable), aims to develop methods of safeguarding digital objects including text, sound and image files, multimedia documents, websites, databases and video games.

‘People don't think twice about saving files digitally from snapshots taken on a camera phone to national or regional archives. But every digital file risks being either lost by degrading or by the technology used to read it disappearing,’ said Dr Janet Delve, one half of the research team.

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In 2010 the amount of new digital data created will be equivalent to 18 million times the information contained in all the books ever written. Britain's National Archive holds the equivalent of 580,000 encyclopaedias of information in file formats that are no longer available.

‘Former generations have left a rich supply of books, letters and documents which tell us who they were, how they lived and what they discovered. We could bequeath a blank spot in history,’ says Dr Delve.

Retro games consoles

Nearly 1million Euros has been given to the faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries researchers to help create software that can look back in time and capture the workings of old computers, files, software and technologies. They also hope to be able to future-proof the software so every single piece of data and software created can be encoded to be read by newer, faster, better computers in the future.

‘Early hardware like games consoles and computers are already found in museums but if you can't show visitors what they did, by playing the software on them, it would be much the same as putting musical instruments on display but throwing away all the music,’ said Dr David Anderson, who is jointly responsible for the project.

Other institutions involved in the KEEP project include the national libraries of France, the Netherlands and Germany and the European Game Developers Federation.

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