Scientists resurrect classic digital content

A Europe-wide project will see the creation of the world’s first general-purpose emulator, that will recover and preserve everything from classic games to near-obsolete databases.

Scientists resurrect classic digital content

The KEEP (Keeping Emulation Environments Portable) Project is a joint venture run by a team of university researchers around Europe. They’re creating a virtual machine that “will be able to handle any digital object you throw at it”, from classic video games to 5 1/4in floppy discs.

“Once the architecture is in there, it’ll run any emulator that you plug directly into the core architecture,” Dan Pinchbeck from the University of Portsmouth told PC Pro. “It should be able to handle any digital object from any period.”

He also claims the emulator is future-proof, because it can, itself, be emulated.

“It constantly keeps updating, so it’ll be able to recreate any digital object,” Pinchbeck said.

The project is being rolled out on PC terminals across Europe – the next stage is to find a UK site.

The team is also working on an online search feature, so that users can access the data collated by the project from their own homes.

“What I hope to see at the end of it is a freely accessible web interface, where anybody can search the KEEP archive and see what’s within it,” said Pinchbeck.

National libraries across the world have typically stored and preserved digital artefacts by taking the original data and converting it to a newer format. The KEEP team argues that this method is flawed, as you constantly have to convert the data as each format become obsolete, and the more you compress the data, the more its quality degrades.

The team claims that emulation is a better way preserving content, because it involves recreating the platform, rather than changing the digital object.

Saving games

Pinchbeck said that one type of digital artefact that is often overlooked is computer games. These tend to be lost very quickly as new consoles are developed at a fast pace, and older formats quickly become obsolete.

Although there are programmers around who emulate classic video games and distribute the software online, as well as the emulators, this movement stems out of fan culture and there’s no systematic preservation of digital games.

“It’s partially because they’re seen as pop culture artefacts are not given a great amount of value, but for me, they’re a very important part of our cultural history,” said Pinchbeck.

“The technical innovations that are being made in games are important to preserve, as much as the game experience itself.”

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