A Tribute to the 1977 RCA VIP Home Computer

VIP2K in operation at VCFMW

Let's go back... Way back to 1976, at the dawn of the microcomputer revolution. Before the Apple II, Commodore PET, and Atari home computers, Joe Weisbecker designed the RCA VIP. It was an elegantly simple home computer that was easy to learn and fun to use. That's an original VIP on top of the monitor in the photo.

He spent years testing and perfecting the design with FRED (Friendly Recreational Educational Device), System 0, and the Microtutor, until the VIP itself was ready. It had an RCA 1802 microprocessor, 2K (or optionally 4K) of RAM, a monitor program in ROM, a 16-key hex keypad, a 64x128 pixel graphics video display, and a serial port to load/save its programs on cassette tapes. It used 1/4 the parts of its rivals, and was far less expensive. It should have been a raging success! So what went wrong? RCA had been "burned" by its failures in the mainframe computer market, so Management was dead set against entering the risky microcomputer arena. They dragged their feet, and never gave the VIP the chance it deserved. It got left at the starting line, while others raced ahead.

For the 40th anniversary of the VIP, we made a new version you can build yourself. That's it at the bottom of the photo, hiding under its tiny keyboard! The battery box is at the right, with four AA cells to power it. Our version has the same 1802 microprocessor, but with significant upgrades in speed, memory, and features:

Assembled VIP2K boards

The computer is based on the COSMAC Elf and 1802 Membership Card, so the same software works with little or no change. The kit comes with the MCSMP20 Monitor, RCA BASIC3, and CHIP8 programming language all in ROM. They use the VIP2K's keyboard and video for user input and output, and the serial port for load/save.

The manual is pretty basic, but should be enough if you're a skilled kit builder. Bare boards are available, and the parts are all generic and easy to get (no rare, expensive, or custom parts); but you'll need to be able to program your own EPROMs. Or order a kit, which comes with everything, including EPROMs programmed with the latest software.

31 Oct 2022: The VIP2K rev.C kit is now available!

VIP2K rev.C Bare Boards -- $18.02. Includes both PC boards and the manual with schematic, parts list, and parts sources.

VIP2K rev.C Complete Kit -- $50.00. PC boards, manual, tested 4 MHz 1802, programmed EPROMs, and all parts that go on the boards. Select NTSC or PAL:

Need more information?

VIP2K BASIC3 Enterprise demo

Here is a photo of it in operation, displaying the ELF's iconic Star Trek Enterprise image, and the BASIC program to produce it. The current VIP2K14 programs expect uppercase input, so the keyboard assumes uppercase (and SHIFT produces lowercase). Shift+key, Control+key, and Shift+Control+key functions can produce all ASCII characters. For example, ^1 is ESC, ^2 comma, ^3 semicolon, etc. VIP2K Key sequences has the entire map.

CHIP8 was written for the VIP by Joe Weisbecker, and documented in the Dec 1978 issue of Byte Magazine article "An Easy Programming System". It's an amazing language; an interpreter like BASIC, but small and fast like machine code. It is optimized for creating animated bitmap screen images with extremely low CPU speed and memory requirements, typical of the computers of the time. CHIP8 was ported to many other computers, and hundreds of programs and games were written in it. A CHIP8 community is still active today, holding annual programming contests (search Google for OCTOJAM).

The project is still evolving. The next goal is a serial terminal program, to use the VIP2K as a data terminal for other small computers. If you have any ideas, let us know!

The current version is now rev.C. It has an improved speaker output, power-on reset circuit, a RESET key on the keyboard, and a Caps Lock function and LED.

Here are the known bugs (and fixes) on the earlier rev.A PC board:

Marcel van Tongeren added the VIP2K to his excellent EMMA 1802 emulator. This will make it a *lot* easier to try and test software ideas.

Walter Miraglia's VIP2K case and LCD monitor

Walter Miraglia 3D printed some lovely little cases for his VIP2K. The picture at left shows one with a tiny LCD monitor sitting on top. He has the files for it on Thingiverse.

Tomihisa Sakai produced a blog page on his VIP2K. It's in Japanese, but Herb Johnson made a quick translation of it here.

The VIP figured prominently in the early electronic music scene. Here are some examples of music produced by the VIP in 1978.
Paul Schmidt's VIP2K keyboard overlay

Paul Schmidt (youtuuba) made a detailed Youtube video of a pre-production VIP2K. Check it out here. He also made a nice keyboard overlay (pictured above).

Chuck Yakym and Marcel van Tongeren added PAL (50Hz) support for European and Far East TV monitors. Please specify PAL when you order the kit, or download the 2716-pal.hex file (above) to make your own EPROM.

VIP2K reproduction of RCA VIP © 2019-2023 by Lee A. Hart. Created 9/14/2018. Last update 7/10/2023.
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