Hacking Billy Bass, or, “open source hardware”

Remember those “Big Mouth Billy Bass” toys that came out about five years ago — an animatronic fish that would wiggle and sing various songs? These days you can get one for about a dollar at a junk store, so hackers have started opening them up, installing embedded Linux chips, and using the fish for other things. For starters, they’ve installed an algorithm that plays audio out the fish’s speaker while co-ordinating its mouth movements. Click here, and you can see video of Billy Bass speaking in Bill Clinton’s voice as he says “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” Finer entertainment cannot be had.

And dig this: The hackers are eventually going to use Billy Bass as a telepresence object:

By adding a microphone and CCD camera to the system, the toy will be transformed into a webcam or a videoconferencing station … It will be possible to use Microsoft NetMeeting or CUSeeMe to connect to your bass at home and talk with your loved one ones!

And now we enter the “blatant self-congratulation” part of this blog entry. Two and a half years ago, I was writing the technology for the Report on Business magazine at The Globe and Mail, and I did a column about what I called “open source hardware” — the trend of hackers opening up high-tech toys and rejigging them to do different things. Much like open-source software, hardware hacking often relies upon disparate groups of geeks sharing info; a worldwide consortium of programmers, for example, worked together to assemble the super-secret schematics to the Furby toy. (In fact, they even formed a competition around it: Hack Furby.)

Obviously, tinkerers have been opening up gadgets for centuries and mucking with them. But open-source hardware hacking has undergone a renaissance in recent years, because of several trends: i) Toys these days frequently have extremely complex microprocessors and motion/light/sound sensors, stuff that was literally NASA-class only ten years ago; ii) these toys are nonetheless extremely cheap, so thousands of hackers worldwide can and do buy them; and iii) the Internet makes it possible for them to collaborate on breaking open the toys and assembling schematics.

If you want to read the whole column I wrote, I put a copy of it below — click “more” and it’s there in full!

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

The Furby gets hacked — and the world of hardware development will never be the same
by Clive Thompson
Report on Business Magazine, July 2001

In December 1999, Jeff Gibbons was playing with a Furby — the furry little computerized toy — when he got an idea. What if he could reprogram it to speak normal English, instead its usual gibberish and cooing noises? “You could put them in a gift box and have it yell ‘let me outta here!’” laughs Gibbons, a computer consultant in Calgary.

Cool idea — and, as it turns out, one that a lot of other hackers already had. When Gibbons went online, he discovered a whole network of Furby geeks. They’d set up a “Hack Furby” contest, and one techie already ripped the toy apart, posting a complete spec of its internal systems — the tilt sensor, the audio sensor, the UV sensors, the 20HMZ processor. “That was half my work done there,” Gibbons marvelled.

But it was Gibbons, and a partner in Chicago, who finished the job — by figuring out out how to add a new microchip “brain.” They released their solution online, and last November became minorly famous for winning the “Hack Furby” contest. Soon, geeks worldwide began using the technique and reprogramming Furbies to use as intruder alerts, motion sensors, or to tell filthy jokes. “I’m getting emails every day about it!” Gibbons says.

In some ways, this is a familiar story: Hackers working together on collaborative projects, using the Net to co-ordinate their efforts. That’s what the “Open Source” software movement is all about. To create the free Linux operating system, for example, Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds worked with hundreds of other hackers worldwide. As the open-source movement has realized, many hands make light work; if enough people take a crack at the same problem, they can figure out a solution for any software puzzle.

But in the last year, I’ve been increasingly a similar thing happen with hardware. Geeks are taking high-tech devices — scanner pens, web pads, digital recorders — then dissecting them together online and finding new uses for them. Call it, if you will, “Open Source Hardware.” And it has the potential to subtly alter the way gadgets are developed.

After all, what these guys are doing is essentially free technical research. By November 2000, Furby’s mass popularity was pretty much dead; the hackers have figured out new ways to harness its rather astonishing computer power. Indeed, this is part of what fuels the trend: cheap electronic devices are being built with ever-more-powerful processors, allowing toys and gadgets to be used for things the inventor never dreamed. And since they’re mass-produced, they get into the hands of enough hackers to produce a vibrant community. “We’re doing lab research for these guys,” says Peter van der Linden, an engineer in Silicon Valley who founded the hack-Furby contest. He’s programmed his own Furby to calculate and read out the digits of Pi. “We’re giving these products new life!”

The same thing happened to the CueCat, a small, cat-shaped scanner pen handed out for free last year by the Dallas, Texas-based Digital Convergence last fall. Plugged into your computer, the CueCat was intended to work as a device for browsing content on the Internet. You could scan special bar codes in advertisements, and the CueCat would direct your browser to sites with more information.

Within days, hardware hackers broke the CueCat’s encryption codes — and starting rejigging the device. Michael Rothwell, a director of research and development for a high-tech company in North Carolina, wrote software that lets you use a cuecat to swipe the barcode on a book, and be taken to its relevant page at Amazon.com. He’s also using it to build an inventory of his CDs. “This thing has all sorts of potential beyond what Digital Convergence was using it for,” he notes. “Even better, really. I mean, the idea of using it as a way to browse the Net was always kind of stupid. This is much better.”

Mind you, this isn’t quite so simple for the creator companies. Hardware hacking requires that geeks publicly discuss the intricacies of proprietary technologies — stuff that companies are trying to keep hidden, or at least under control. But, as with the open-source software movement, the techies are primarily interested in learning and having fun — and don’t always respect traditional notions of intellectual property.

After the CueCat was hacked, Digital Convergence sent out warning letters to Rothwell noting that he was using proprietary code. “The thing about intellectual property is that you have to defend it right away, or a court can later determine you never really took it seriously,” says Doug Davis, the chief technology officer for Digital Convergence.

For some companies, hardware hacking has helped trash their business plans. Last year, the Austin, Texas-based Netpliance put out the “I-Opener,” a device for letting newbies surf the Net. It included a flatpanel screen, a full keyboard, and 32 megs of memory, and cost only $199 (some sales took it down to only $99). Since it had no hard drive, you couldn’t download big documents or instal new pieces of software.

Until the hardware hackers got ahold of it — such as Ken Segler, who runs his own electronics consulting firm in Las Vegas. Segler bought one, wired in an external hard drive for another $100 (US), installed Linux, and presto — he’d turned the I-Opener into a full-fledged computer, for under $200 (US). “Not bad,” he muses, proudly. Other techies flooded Segler’s web site looking for details on how to do the hack; he eventually sold “a few thousand” special kits to help people modify their I-openers.

The hack was ruinous for Netpliance. For the company to make money, it needed people to sign up for Netpliance’s $21.95-a-month (US) Internet access plan, specially geared for Internet newcomers. The devices weren’t money makers; they were priced at cost to help seed the market. So every time a hacker bought one, turned it into a computer, and didn’t sign up for Netpliance’s service, Netpliance lost money. “We were subsidizing the whole thing,” complains Jon Werner, Netpliance’s director of emerging technologies. Unable to fully halt the trend, Netpliance stopped making Iopeners on Jan. 31, 2001; now they concentrate their business solely on providing online services.

Still, things aren’t always combative. Tiger Electronics hasn’t tried to shut down any Furby hacking, since it already makes money on each one sold — even if somebody opens it up and teaches it to recite dirty limericks. (“But,” a Tiger P.R. rep tells me sternly, “we do not approve of anyone altering the magic that is Furby.”)

And Digital Convergence openly acknowledges that the hackers were providing an quixotically valuable service, by finding potential new markets for their CueCat. In fact, the company quickly decided to sell cheap, $20 licenses to anyone who wanted to create applications — legally — for the CueCat. “We fully expected that people would find new uses for it. We knew it was going to get hacked,” Davis says. He was also amazed at the expansive technical write-ups of the device he found online: “Some of it was better than ours. I was telling our technical guys, hey, you gotta see this stuff. Check it out!”

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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