RED BOXES: GIS is a box|Amstrad Computer User)RED BOXES|Amstrad Action)
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Box clever and stay in control

Networks don't have to be a thing of the future — thanks to GIS Red Boxes. Rupert Goodwins reads between the lines. A longstanding dream of many technically inclined computer buffs has been home control - using a micro to run electrical appliances around the house.
Think about it - the computer could turn on the radio in the morning, then the kettle. During the night it could watch rooms using sensors, and sound alarms if it detected anything un-towards. Then it could switch on lights for you when you came home in the evening and prewarm your wife, er, electric blanket for you.

While it's possible to do this by connecting everything up to special wires and leading these to the micro, this is obviously messy, time-consuming and inconvenient. But it's also feasable to send the control signals down the network that every home's got wired-in already - the mains.
Sending signals down the mains isn't a new idea, some electricity boards have been doing it for years to switch street lights. The main application in the home has been 'cordless'intercoms, and baby alarms that allow you to eavesdrop on the neighbours rowing.
Ours probably rowed for Cambridge, they were that good.

Now a system is available for a number of micros, including Amstrad CPCs, that can control almost anything via the mains. It's called Red Boxes, and it comes from the people (mostly Chris Curry) who brought you the Acorn System 1, and the Atom. And they had something to do with the BBC Micro as well, before leaving Acorn to form GIS.

The bitz

Red Boxes, as bought, are, er, red boxes. For your £139 you get three very red boxes with mains leads (red) and plugs (red) hanging off them. They're called Red Leader, Red One and Red Two. The mind biggies.

In reverse order, Red Two is a motion detector. Plug it into a wall socket, and if it subsequentially detects movement in its vicinity it informs on the fact by sending a signal down the mains. Red One has a 13 amp socket (red) which it switches on and off on receipt of the appropriate mains-bom message. And then there's Red Leader.
Red Leader has a data socket (black . . . shame) on it, through which it connects to whichever computer one owns. This is where it gets clever. Red Leader is in fact a fully fledged computer, with rom, RAM and a language, which controls as many of its lesser brethren as are plugged in on the same mains.

The attached computer acts as a terminal for setting up and programming only. Red Leader couldn't care less what computer it is, and once it has
been programmed the computer can be disconnected completely.
The boxes come with a complete set of wall mountings, which considering their intended semi-permanent installation in a home is a nice touch indeed. Red Two especially needs some careful positioning on a wall to make the best of its potential, and prevent Tibbies from triggering the small tactical nuke you've got lined up for any blagger that dares to cross your Red Threshold.

Setting up is really easy. Plug Red Two in in the area to be watched, plug Red One in between some appliance you want to remotely control (I used a cassette player for this review, playing a little Bach) and the mains, and plug Red Leader into your Amstrad with the lead supplied.
Turn on your computer, then plug Red Leader into the mains. A little technical jiggerypokery later, and the Red Control Program Display (in white) appears on your screen.

Colour coding

The control program displays a list of red boxes currently plugged into your system, whether they're on or off, what time they're set to go off (or on) at, and how long for. It also allows you to set Red Leader's internal clock, turn anything on or off, and also to link devices together (so the hall light always comes on when the hall people detector detects people).
Before you can use a red box you've plugged into the mains, you have to install it on Red Leader. You do this by giving it a name, like Lightl or Detect, and then typing in its Id. The Id is a sequence of four numbers (does Freud know this?) totalling some 17 digits unique to each and every box. This both gives you a method of identifying boxes and prevents interference with a neighbour's boxes.

All this is accomplished by simple single key command selection and typing in numbers where necessary. When you've finished sorting out the times for everything you can leave Red Leader to get on with it and unplug your computer.

But if you're really keen, and want to go to town on your house, there's Red Basic. Selecting Quit from the Red Control Program leaves you with a 1 prompt. From this you can write programs to suit your exact needs.

Red Basic is a bit like BBC Basic (funny, that), but with Amstrad-style EVERY commands to do repetitive functions. It can also react to messages coming in by a WHEN command, and commands the rest of the squadron by TELL. So a typical program to blast burglars with a bit of Bach is

20 GOTO 20
30 .branden
50 FOR F=0 to 4000: NEXT F

  • Line 10 tells Red Leader to go and do the subroutine called Branden if it gets a message from ALARM (which is what I've previously installed Red Two as). Line 20 is a bit of electronic thumb-twiddling.
  • Lines 30 to 70 are the cassette player activation routine.
  • Line 40 turns the cassette player (which I've called "GHETTO") on.
  • 50 is just a delay to give the intruder a chance to savour the music.
  • 60 both turns the cassette player off for the next time, and re-arms Red Two. The CONTINUE is the equivalent of a RETURN for a WHEN command.

Devices can be referenced by the name you give them, or the number between 0 and 9 Red Basic gives them when they're installed.

Programs can be saved to cassette or disc once finished, and in this and most other respects Red Basic has been well designed for the tasks it's likely to be put to. It's a bit tricky linking it to any of your computer's other functions, though. I tried to get my modem and Red Leader to work together (phone home and set the video...), but no dice.

Well read And now the documentation paragraph. Not a lot to say about the 50 page booklet, except that it's red and seems to cover everything with a fair amount of detail.
But I would recommend the beginner programmer to get another book on Basic before tackling the Red Basic section. It's definitely for hardened hackers only.
There is a bit of a problem in the section that describes the Id label. It tells you that the Id is four numbers separated by commas, and to type it in exactly as it appears on the label on the box in question. Well, it appears minus a comma on my labels, and there was a bit of confusion at first. But common sense sorted it out. Overall a competent manual.

Bottom line time. Red Boxes appear to be a very good answer to the question "But what can you use a computer for". Once the gimmicky fun of using Arnold to turn on Sue Ellen has gone, the home security aspects are probably the most impressive, and likely to make Red leader pay its way.
On the minus side I wasn't very impressed with Red Leader's internal workings. The power transformer got very warm, and appeared to be a little underrated, especially for something that's plugged in permanently. However, I didn't have any problems with it in practice.
It's a shame that there's no battery backup to tide the reds over power cuts and that you can't pass computer data over the network. But the positive points, the ease of use, the practicalities and the potential of the Red Boxes far outweigh the negative side of things. I want some.

Amstrad User February 1987

★ PUBLISHERS: General Information Systems  (Croxton Park, Croxton, Cambridgeshire PE19 4SY)
DISTIBUTOR: Electronic Fulfilment Services Ltd
★ YEAR: 1987
★ PRICE: £129 (starter pack)

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L'Amstrad CPC est une machine 8 bits à base d'un Z80 à 4MHz. Le premier de la gamme fut le CPC 464 en 1984, équipé d'un lecteur de cassettes intégré il se plaçait en concurrent  du Commodore C64 beaucoup plus compliqué à utiliser et plus cher. Ce fut un réel succès et sorti cette même années le CPC 664 équipé d'un lecteur de disquettes trois pouces intégré. Sa vie fut de courte durée puisqu'en 1985 il fut remplacé par le CPC 6128 qui était plus compact, plus soigné et surtout qui avait 128Ko de RAM au lieu de 64Ko.