September 28, 2022

Recreate a fictional VHS download device based on Minitel

The Internet as we know it was not the first computer network to be widely used. In the United States and several other countries, online bulletin board systems (BBS) were the best-known precursors to the Internet. But in France they had the Minitel, which was a very successful online service that became available nationwide in 1982 and wasn’t shut down until 2012. Inspired by a comic by the French author Ball, Ghettobastler built a device based on Minitel which downloads YouTube videos and copies them to VHS tapes.

Inspirational comics imagine a France stuck with 80s and 90s technology. In the comic, our protagonist wants to hack an episode of game of thrones. So he hops on his minitel and heads to a torrent service to download the episode onto a VHS tape. Such a thing was implausible on the real Minitel network, which only offered download speeds of 1200 bits per second. At this rate, it would take hundreds of hours to download a single hour-long episode in VHS resolution. But Ghettobastler didn’t need to rely on the real Minitel network, as it had the modern technology to bridge the gap.

The devices used to access the Minitel network, including the popular Minitel 1, were terminals, not personal computers. They could display very simple text and graphics sent over telephone lines via the Minitel network and return text strings, but could not do any processing on their own. It is also ideal for this project, because Ghettobastler was able to use its Minitel 1 as a terminal connected to a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B single board computer. The two communicate serially via level shifting and the Raspberry Pi provides a simple interface that displays on the Minitel 1. CRT screen.

In this interface, the user can enter a search string. The Raspberry Pi will then use a simple Python script to search for this channel on the YouTube website, retrieve the results and list them in the Minitel interface. The user can then select the video title they want and the Raspberry Pi will use another script to upload the video to its storage.

Once the video is stored, the Raspberry Pi begins to play it through the composite video output. This feeds an old VCR with a VHS tape already in place. As soon as the video starts playing, the Raspberry Pi pulses an infrared LED to mimic the VCR remote’s “while recording” command. From there, just wait for the entire video to play and save to the VHS tape for later viewing.

It serves no practical purpose in today’s world, but it’s fascinating to see a silly fictional concept from a comic book come to life as a real device.