The people of the 1970s were fascinated by technology. We are just as fascinated today, although we’re a bit more rewarded by the technology we worship. Today we have video games that look like movies, autonomous robot vacuums, and homes full of switches that turn on with our voices. Today, we carry a portal to all the knowledge in the world right in our hands.
The world of 1970s technology was full of promise, but fairly empty on delivery. Computers of the day were severely limited compared to those of today. There’s such a stark difference between how we interact with our technology today compared to the late 1970s, it makes you wonder how we’ll interact with technology fifty years from now. But that’s a subject for another article.
Today, let’s look back. If you have kids, you know that they learn a lot using their electronic devices. They probably take all their classes through them, and use cloud-based apps to learn and practice. That wasn’t true in 1978. In 1978, there was an electronic learning system, though. It was called 2XL.
2XL: The robot that was really an 8-track player
This is 2XL. It was marketed by Mego in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I had a friend who had one of these. It was fun and fascinating then, although I doubt it would be so exciting today.
2XL was an electronic version of the “choose your own adventure” books so popular at the time. It wasn’t as complex as Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, not by a long shot. No, 2XL was a far more simple experience. But, for tech-obsessed kids back then, it was a heck of a lot of fun.
The experience seemed like really interacting with a robot, although it wasn’t anything like that at all. 2XL used 8-track tape cartridges. The robot would ask a question and you would respond by pressing one of the buttons on the front. If you answered correctly, 2XL would tell you so. If you were wrong, it told you that too. There were simple quizzes, but there were also stories where you could interact, in a very basic way.
The real story of 2XL
2XL wasn’t nearly as magical when you realized what was actually happening. Pressing one of the buttons on the front switched audio tracks on a fairly conventional 8-track tape player. 8-tracks, for those who don’t remember, were an audio format used mostly in cars where an album was cut into four equal sections. All four stereo tracks were stacked up on a piece of 1/4″ tape that went in an endless loop inside a cartridge. As the tape cycled from the end to the beginning, the playback head would move so it could read the next two tracks. 8-track wasn’t a very good technology, but that’s a story for another article.
Using 8-track tapes made it possible for Mego to design a simple mechanism using existing technology. That kept the price down and made 2XL affordable for parents with young kids. Mego also marketed 2XL as being able to play conventional 8-track tapes, making it a good 2-in-1 gift for parents seeking value. The speaker wasn’t that good, but it was good enough that kids used it happily.
The 2XL story continues
I found a 2XL fan page, and it’s as much of a time capsule as the original 2XL. It was built in 2002 and didn’t change much after that. There’s even a (non-functional) visitors counter at the bottom. It’s full of facts, trivia, and even images of the original cartridges. Because the site was built before YouTube was invented (yes really) there aren’t any videos, but here’s one uploaded much later.
There was a second edition of 2XL that was released in the early 1990s. By then it used cassettes instead of 8-tracks. Here it is in action:
By this time, technology had become quite a bit more advanced and many homes had actual computers. This version of 2XL didn’t really succeed in the marketplace, because there were better alternatives. Most folks who do remember 2XL at all will remember the original version, not this newer version.