WebTV was a service launched in 1996 that brought this amazing new internet craze right into your living room, and it was a pretty compelling device for its time. You could view newsgroups, join IRC chatrooms, send emails, browse the web, and on later models simultaneously watch TV in Picture-in-Picture mode.
When I was in middle school my brother had one, and he’d pay me to write eBay listings on it. I spent countless hours on that thing chatting, designing flashy HTML 3.2 listings, and listening to its vast library of midi background music.
Honestly, even by today’s standards, WebTV puts most smart TVs’ capabilities to shame. Sure it can’t do streaming video or Netflix, but streaming video barely existed as a novelty at this point, and Netflix wouldn’t begin their transition to online distribution for a whole decade yet.
This launch video provides some context of how mind-blowing the WebTV was for the time, and it only got better. Later models could even display program schedules and control your VCR to record shows like a DVR, which you could then watch later while hanging out in a chatroom. From your couch. In the freaking 90s.
A few weeks ago I saw a Philips MAT976 WebTV at the thrift store but passed it up figuring it was a brick–the service died long ago, after all. Imagine my delight, then, when I found this YouTube video by Michael MJD showing a project well on its way to restoring the experience.
Naturally I rushed back and bought the unit, then set about connecting it.
Suppose you’ve also just bought a WebTV and want to connect it to one of the custom servers currently out there. How might you go about doing that?
The first thing you’ll likely need to do when setting up an original WebTV unit is clear its settings. You can do this with a “power off code.” Just have your WebTV plugged in but in a powered-off state, then do one of the following:
- Keyboard: Press
option3 times, then type
- Remote: Press
option3 times, then
HOME, BACK, ↑, ↓, GO
The lights on your box should give you a fun little show for a few seconds, then all tellyscript, dialing options, TV listings, etc. should be cleared giving you a more or less blank slate to work with.
Buying the right modem
To connect to modern servers you’ll need to go over the internet. To do this you’ll need a Linux-compatible USB voice modem connected to an internet-connected Raspberry Pi. The common wisdom around the community is you should be using something with a Conexant RD02-D400 chipset. Common models of these include the Lenovo RD02-D400 and the Dell NW147. Based on my reading Zoom, StarTech, and US Robotics may have also made RD02-D400 USB modems, but I’m having trouble finding model numbers for those.
It’s worth noting that this modem isn’t connecting to a real phone line. Your WebTV won’t actually be dialing out, and you don’t need phone service. Your Pi is going to trick the WebTV into thinking whatever it dialed was real.
Buying the right Raspberry Pi
I don’t even want to admit how many hours I lost to this project figuring a Pi 2 Model B would be fine, because come on. It’s just using a USB modem. How resource-intensive could that be?
Get a Pi 4 for this. And hook it up with ethernet. You can try your luck with wifi, but for me that also caused extreme unreliability and inexplicably slow connection speeds when it did work.
Phone line simulator 2022
Lastly, you need to power your phone line. Old phone lines had voltage on them, and your devices are expecting that voltage to be there.
You might see USB modems for DreamPi designed with a line voltage inducer built in, but skip those. The WebTV wants that line voltage cranked. An AC to DC adapter that puts out anywhere from 15-25V DC should work.
To build your phone line, you need to cut a pair 1 wire and splice the positive and negative from your DC supply in with it. Pair 1 is the innermost two pins on your telephone connector. Normally this pair is red and green, but color may not help here since there were multiple standards and some manufacturers also didn’t give a crap. Which wire of pair 1 you splice into makes no difference.
The DC power supply should go inline with your chosen wire such that signal is coming down one wire, through your power supply, and back out to the same wire. Which way you hook positive and negative also makes no difference.
You may be feeling like this is all very slapdash advice. Just splice inline with either wire in either direction? And nothing’s going to get fried? Yes. I went ahead and tested this with straight-throughs, rollovers, and reversed polarity in each, and you get a nice dial tone in any configuration. Pair 1, pick a wire, splice in, don’t overthink it.
Connect one end of your powered phone line to the WebTV. Connect the other end to your modem. Connect your modem to a Raspberry Pi. Connect the Pi to the internet.
To connect your hardware, you’ll be dialing to what’s called a minisrv. This is a recreation of WebTV’s original servers by Zefie with assistance from eMac, MattMan, Jarhead, and Sgeo. There are a number of public minisrvs, covered later. In order for your WebTV to contact a minisrv, your Pi will need to accept dialing attempts from your WebTV, then provide routing for what it’s sending to the correct endpoints on a minisrv.
The dialup and routing methods available as of this writing are a little tricky, but everything’s there if you piece it together. There’s MattMan‘s DreamPi For WebTV V2 Raspberry Pi image which is easy enough to flash over to an SD card and start up, but there are newer routing rules that aren’t in it as of this writing. There’s also notdreamnorpi by samicrusader that isolates the essential USB modem connection components of DreamPi, but it doesn’t come with the routing necessary to make a WebTV function once it completes its dialup connection. Lastly there’s an nftables gist by nitrate92 that contains the necessary routing, but the rules may get dropped on every restart without further configuration.
The simplest solution seems to be getting an old version of notdreamnorpi operational on a pi with the nftables rules from nitrate92’s gist added. I’d recommend this over attempting to add the routes to the DreamPi image, as it was built with Raspbian Stretch and doesn’t include the kernel modules necessary to make nftables function.
If you don’t care how any of this works and just want to start surfing, skip to the end of this section for the lazy bash script.
First you’ll need a base Raspbian image, so grab the Raspberry Pi Imager and get an SD card ready. You’ll want to choose Raspberry Pi OS (other) and then Raspberry Pi OS Lite. I tested on 32-bit Raspbian Buster 2022-09-22. This will give you a fresh OS with no desktop environment. There’s zero point in having a desktop environment for this since it’s just going to sit behind a TV and pretend to be a phone line.
With the image written to your SD card, hook in a monitor and keyboard for first-time setup. Get your locale, hostname, network settings, etc. right and remember to enable SSH if needed. Since it will probably be buried in a nest of TV wires, SSH can be a real blessing.
The dependencies you’ll actually need in this setup vary a bit from what’s in the readme, so do
sudo apt install wvdial python3-psutil python3-serial python3-sh python3-systemd.
Something else to note here is notdreamnorpi will need a free IP address for the PPP link it makes. It will try to search your network for one, counting backwards from x.x.x.100. This isn’t always successful and can easily squat right on a static IP for something else and cause conflicts. This probably won’t happen to you, but if it does, edit line 96 in
~/notdreamnorpi/dreampi.py to start searching in an IP range you know is unused on your local network.
Adding and preserving nftables rules
For the webtv.nft gist, save webtv.nft wherever you like on your pi and run
sudo nft flush ruleset and
sudo nft -f webtv.nft to set the rules.
The only problem here is that all the rules may be gone whenever you reboot the Pi. To keep them around we need to persist them somehow. There are a lot of ways to do this, but the cleanest is probably just to run the above commands in a systemd unit file that also starts notdreamnorpi once the network is up.
Running notdreamnorpi on startup
With everything in place, we need to ensure notdreamnorpi provides a dial tone when the Pi starts up. Then we have a set-and-forget solution that can be reset with a power cycle.
Again there are a lot of ways to do this, but we’ll cover the systemd unit file. Nitrate92 was kind enough to share theirs, and it does the job perfectly while also persisting the nftables rules. I’ve lightly edited it here:
[Unit] Description=dreampi After=network.target Wants=network-online.target [Service] Type=simple User=root ExecStartPre=/usr/sbin/nft flush ruleset ExecStartPre=/usr/sbin/nft -f /home/pi/webtv.nft ExecStart=/usr/bin/python3 /home/pi/notdreamnorpi/dreampi.py WorkingDir=/home/pi/notdreamnorpi Restart=on-failure RestartSec=5s [Install] WantedBy=multi-user.target
Create this file at /etc/systemd/system/dreampi.service.
Ain’t nobody got time for that
I hear you. If you don’t care how any of that works and just want a script that does everything above with the recommended settings, here you go. Just grab a Pi with Raspbian Lite on it, copy this into a .sh file in your home directory, run it, and reboot. Enjoy your dial tone.
#!/bin/bash # For Raspbian Pi OS 32-bit 2022-09-22. # prevent root if [[ $EUID -eq 0 ]]; then echo "Script will sudo when it needs to. Just run it as a regular user." 1>&2 exit 1 fi echo "Setting up dependencies, notdreamnorpi, WebTV routing rules, and systemd unit file..." sleep 1 # install dependencies (throw kitchen sink, you likely already have many of these) sudo apt install -y git ppp net-tools nftables wvdial python3-psutil python3-serial python3-sh python3-systemd # clone notdreamnorpi - archived version, works well in systemd unit file wget https://github.com/samicrusader/notdreamnorpi/archive/da8225eb716fa3af9fb3e7d02431033605935f68.zip unzip da8225eb716fa3af9fb3e7d02431033605935f68.zip mv notdreamnorpi-da8225eb716fa3af9fb3e7d02431033605935f68 notdreamnorpi sed -i -e 's/\/sbin\/init/\/usr\/bin\/systemd\/systemd/' notdreamnorpi/dreampi.py # /sbin/init --version doesn't work on raspbian, crashes notdreamnorpi # download webtv.nft wget -O webtv.nft https://gist.githubusercontent.com/nitrate92/6f67518c79b769c02e9a12beb0bb87eb/raw/33b33a4a1fffcb86a30f0ef33368228a458032c1/webtv.nft sudo nft flush ruleset sudo nft -f webtv.nft # set up the systemd unit file unitfile="[Unit] Description=dreampi After=network.target Wants=network-online.target [Service] Type=simple User=root ExecStartPre=/usr/sbin/nft flush ruleset ExecStartPre=/usr/sbin/nft -f /home/$(whoami)/webtv.nft ExecStart=/usr/bin/python3 /home/$(whoami)/notdreamnorpi/dreampi.py WorkingDir=/home/$(whoami)/notdreamnorpi Restart=on-failure RestartSec=5s [Install] WantedBy=multi-user.target" echo "$unitfile" > dreampi.service sudo mv dreampi.service /etc/systemd/system/ sudo systemctl daemon-reload sudo systemctl enable dreampi sudo systemctl start dreampi.service echo "" echo "All done. Configured to route to Zefie's minisrv. Recommend rebooting before using." echo "To change servers any time, edit ServerIP in /home/$(whoami)/webtv.nft then reboot." echo "If you have something with a static IP around x.x.x.100, x.x.x.99, etc. edit line 96" echo "of /home/$(whoami)/notdreamnorpi/dreampi.py to start IP searching in a known free range."
If you need to debug this, you can view live logs from the service with
journalctl -f -u dreampi. Mine still fails to connect sometimes, but I find it’s usually the WebTV needing a power off code instead of a problem with the Pi.
While JarHead‘s server from Michael MJD’s video isn’t yet public, there are a couple of other public servers up and running. You can find Zefie’s minisrv by setting the server address to 188.8.131.52 (default in above script), or MattMan’s HackTV minisrv at 184.108.40.206. These don’t try to offer the original experience, but they will let your original hardware browse the web again just like it used to, and each has its own fun surprises in its custom menus.
You can also make your own server and do whatever you like with it if that’s more to your taste. Zefie’s minisrv repo is how you would get started with that.
Lastly, if you’d like to chat with the WebTV modding community, there’s a Discord server at https://discord.gg/qke279EUa8.