University digital time machine to conserve old files

Computer historians and researchers at Portsmouth University are developing a software emulator that will recognise and run all computer files from the 1970s through to the present day.

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Computer historians and researchers at Portsmouth University are developing a software emulator that will recognise and run all computer files from the 1970s through to the present day.

Experts are building the world's first "general purpose emulator", which they hope will be able to read all types of computer file, from Space Invaders and Pacman arcade machines to the floppy discs and minidiscs of more recent years.

The emulator is part of an EU €4 million (£3.6 million) project called KEEP (Keeping Emulation Environments Portable), which is designed to preserve digital files which may otherwise have been lost.

The researchers also hope to "future-proof" the software so every single piece of data and software created can be coded to be read by newer and faster computers in the future.

"People don't think twice about saving files digitally - from snapshots taken on a camera phone to national or regional archives," said computer historian Dr Janet Delve.

"But every digital file risks being either lost by degrading or by the technology used to 'read' it disappearing altogether. Former generations have left a rich supply of books, letters and documents which tell us who they were, how they lived and what they discovered. There's a very real risk that we could bequeath a blank spot in history."

A vast amount of digital information is created each year. By 2010 the amount of digital information created worldwide "will be equivalent to 18 million times the information contained in all the books ever written." The rate of growth shows no signs of slowing.

Fellow historian Dr David Anderson said: "We are facing a massive threat of the loss of digital information. It's a very real and worrying problem. Things that were created in the 1970s, 80s and 90s are vanishing fast and every year new technologies mean we face greater risk of losing material."

Anderson said future generations could face a "cultural catastrophe" with the loss of software from early games consoles and computers.

"Games particularly tend not to be archived because they are seen as disposable, pulp cultural artefacts, but they represent a really important part of our recent cultural history," adds researcher and computer games expert Dan Pinchbeck. "Games are one of the biggest media formats on the planet and we must preserve them for future generations."