The 1978 Mego 2-XL Talking Robot was a brilliant illusion of interactive computing, based on 8-Track tapes

Spoken Word with Electronics is an audio series delivering to you a two side recording of unusual stories paired with vintage modular electronic sounds

Hi, everyone, welcome back to the show. This week, the focus is on the Mego toy company and a wonderful toy robot they produced in 1978, called the 2-XL.

There are lots of funny attempts at providing robotic toys in the 1970s and 1980s as a product, and most of them offered something silly, like a robotic arm that can lift a plastic block, or a remote control option with a drink tray and blinking eyes – but the 2-XL actually talked with you and asked you questions. It would tell you if you were right or wrong, too, almost like it had artificial intelligence!

This week's show describes how this worked:

So what you're looking at, actually, is not a robot but a VERY clever use of eight track tapes. The 2-XL has four buttons, which are the same buttons you'll find on an 8-track player. The data cartridges inside the 2-XL were merely 8-track tapes, and the 2-XL is really just an 8-track player with blinking eyes – but that shows the brilliant idea on how to use the format for something interactive. The robot would ask you a multiple choice question and you would select any of those four buttons for your selection. 8-Track cartridges play all four sides simultaneously, as it's all one long loop of 1/4" tape. (Trivia: You couldn't rewind them – Only fast-forward!)

By carefully syncopating all four audio programs on an 8-track, you could produce an interactive experience of "press now to select option one" on one track followed by, in time, "you are correct!" on the other 8-track program. The separate programs would need to allow timing for each other selection, making this a pretty complicated process. And it required your PARTICIPATION in the illusion of this to complete the trick. But if you played along with the 2-XL, it allowed for a complete emulation of what is now common multimedia experiences. Really really freaking clever.

Credit for the invention (and voice acting) on the 2-XL goes to toy inventor Michael J Freeman and there's a GREAT emulator on the 2-XL that provides all the 8-track tapes in an easy to use interface where you can play all the programs.

Whenever I've played with a 2-XL the only thing I've desired is for the robot itself to be a little more robotic, so in the show this week, we run it through a Vocoder. As I mention in the track, there are three really amazing Vocoders on the market today. Two of them cost $4,000 (the Moog re-issue and the GRP V22) and the third one which is almost just as good for sound is an ipad app called Matrix Vocoder, which is just ten dollars. We opted to use that one for this week's show.

Learn about 8-track tapes in general, along with a side-story on choosing tankless water heaters or standard hot water heaters, along with a follow-up to our Bruce Haack tribute from last week here in the player:

SPOKEN WORD WITH ELECTRONICS #47: Hot Water Facts and The 1978 2-XL Talking Robot

Connect with SWWE via Intelligent Tape-Based Robotics on Bandcamp, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and Google .

Thanks and have a good week, Ethan