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SYFY WIRE Science Behind the Fiction

How Sliders Used a Cellphone, Universal Remote, and SEGA Controller to Create Sliding Timer Tech

Stuffing a wormhole into a cellphone from 1992 is the ultimate in TV magic.

By Cassidy Ward
Quinn Mallory (Jerry O'Connell) observes a newly opened multiverse portal in Sliders 101.

When the Sci-Fi Channel's Sliders (now streaming on Peacock) was in production back in 1994, prop designers Steven Genser and Mike Caluori were tasked with designing a device that looks like it might be able to open a portal to another world, while also looking like something a college-aged Jerry O’Connell could slap together with parts from Radio Shack.

To do that, they did what the fictional Quinn Mallory (O’Connell) might have done: took off-the-shelf technology and modified it for their purposes. Throughout the series, Mallory and friends used and encountered a handful of timers – handheld devices used to open up portals to other worlds in the multiverse – each of which were constructed from a common piece of consumer tech.

For More on Sliders:
The Ending of SYFY's Sliders, Explained
Why Did Most of the Original Sliders Cast Leave the Series?
Why Rembrandt Brown was the Real Main Character of Sliders

A Cell Phone, a TV Remote, and a Sega Controller: The Various Timers from Sliders

An Egyptian timer appears on Sliders Season 3 Episode 14.

The original timer first appears in the pilot episode. Mallory accidentally invents sliding while trying to build an antigravity machine in his basement. After throwing a few random objects through the portal (a paper airplane, a Rubik’s cube, and a toy dinosaur) and watching them fail to return, Mallory creates a timing device that retrieves whatever goes through the portal after a chosen time has elapsed.

The original timer was made from a Motorola MicroTAC mobile phone. The first MicroTAC (model 9800X) was released in 1989 and was the smallest mobile phone on the market at the time. Of course, it would be considered hulking by today’s standards. The Ultra Lite hit the market in 1992 and was a considerable upgrade from its predecessor, with a smaller profile, lighter weight, and longer battery life, but it was still a cell phone from 1992. They were practically outdated tech by the time Quinn Mallory stuffed his indecipherable technowizardy inside and used it to rip spacetime apart.

The timer was initially intended only as a peripheral of the actual sliding machine, which takes up a sizable portion of Mallory’s mother’s basement. Its job was simply to bring Mallory and his companions back home once their alt-world adventures were over. After a mishap following the inaugural slide, our heroes lose control of the timer and any connection to their home universe. From then on, the timer sends them to a random universe for a random period of time. If they miss their sliding window, a portal won’t reopen for another 29 years.

The original timer carried the sliders through all of the first two seasons and into the third, until the episode “Slide Like an Egyptian.” On this world, the ancient Egyptian empire survived into the modern age (circa 1997) and spread around the world. After Mallory is captured, the sliders intentionally miss their window in the hope of rescuing him. Fortunately, the scientists of Egypt World were also experimenting with sliding technology and the crew managed to escape with a pilfered timer of Egyptian design.

An Exodus timer appears on Sliders Season 3 Episode 16.

That timer was made from a modified NiteGlow Universal TV remote control, and it remained with the sliders until the series finale. Season 3 offered up another memorable timer just a few episodes after “Slide Like an Egyptian,” during the two-part multiverse event, “The Exodus.”

When the sliders arrive in this universe, they find a version of Earth about to be bombarded by a killer pulsar. The radiation will be enough to wipe out humanity and most, if not all, of the rest of the life on the planet. Scientists on this world had also invented sliding, but they couldn’t figure out how to send organic material (like people) through. Mallory gives them the missing components and helps to scout worlds where they might find a new home.

The Exodus timer is objectively the most eye-catching of the bunch, courtesy of a Mad Catz brand Sega Genesis controller. Mad Catz, if you don’t know, was a third-party company specializing in video game accessories for just about every popular console. If you’ve ever needed an extra controller and not had a lot of money to spare, you’ve probably looked at a Mad Catz.

A Genesis controller was a natural choice because they already looked like something you might find in an alien spaceship. The Mad Catz controller pushed that vibe just a little bit further with a couple of extra ridges at the bottom and a more industrial look overall, by way of an extra button array at the top.

Putting a Multiverse Portal Device Inside a Cell Phone from 1992

Quinn Mallory (Jerry O'Connell) holds his sliding timer in Sliders Season 1 Episode 1.

Each timer was modified to include a digital readout, buttons for punching in coordinates, and other futuristic doodads. Back in 2011, users in a thread on the Replica Prop Forum (RPF) were outlining the steps they had used to create their own homemade timer recreations. Part of building a convincing prop replica is recreating the timer’s power-up preamble, the scrolling and seemingly random characters that run across the display before the portal opens.

Viewers noticed that the preamble wasn’t actually random but, instead, ran through the same eight sets of six characters each time. Moreover, the first three characters in each set are always the last three characters in the next set. When each character is translated to its most approximate letter, it reads as follows: GEnSEr, LacGEN, EnulAc, uriEnu, CAIuri, chcCAI, uLAchc, uriuLA. As a result, prop replica enthusiasts began calling it the Genser sequence.

A few weeks later, Robert Genser himself, appeared in the thread explaining that the power-up preamble contained his last name and that of Mike Caluori, both of whom built the original timer together. During the sequence, Caluori’s name is stylized as CAluri because of the six-character limit of the timer’s display.

Genser also explained that in order to make the timer displays compatible with TV cameras, they had to be non-multiplexed. Typically, displays are multiplexed, meaning that only part of the display is active at any given time. Displays can usually get away with it because the refresh rate is faster than the eye can detect, but cameras aren’t so easily fooled. It’s the reason screens always look weird when you try to record or photograph them with an external camera.

To make the timer displays work for television, they had to be non-multiplexed so that the entire display was active at the same time, and they had to be bright. That meant that the timers gobbled up way more power than could be housed in a phone battery from 1992. Moreover, the phones provided by Motorola were hollow and non-functional, little more than empty shells for Genser and Caluori to stick their timer tech inside of.

If the same thing wanted to be done today, the whole thing could be handled with a custom app on any smartphone off the shelf. In 1994, the whole thing had to be tethered to an external battery pack hidden from viewers by carefully chosen camera angles. It may not have been the most elegant of solutions through the muddled lens of the rearview mirror, but in the last years of the previous millennium, it was enough to make you believe Quinn Mallory really could slide between worlds.

Sliders is streaming, in its entirety, right now on Peacock!