Furby, the fuzzy, wide-eyed toy that coos, just lost his innocence.
A Canadian engineer, armed with a soldering iron and an
oscilloscope, peeled back the creature's thick hide to find that he
could make Furby fully programmable - and able to do things the
manufacturer never intended. Now, the engineer is selling a ''hack
Furby'' kit, giving proud owners the power to jack into the Furby
brain and direct the sweet thing - which speaks its own language
and, at $30, sold like hot cakes two Christmases ago - to sing show
tunes, slam-dance, or swear like a mean old drunk.
''The real high point was when we put the kit [for sale] on the
Web and I started getting phone calls and e-mail from around the
world,'' said Jeffrey Gibbons, adding that he designed the package
for fun, not profit. ''I'd be surprised if it kept me in beer
With the same energy that software hackers bring to terrorizing
the phone company or corporate Web sites, a growing number of
hardware hackers are tearing up toys and discovering, behind
deceptive shells, hidden treasure chests bursting with advanced
sensors and microprocessors. With toys rapidly becoming more
sophisticated, the hacker community sees ever richer fields to play
So for them, and for countless youths, Christmas morning will
bring new challenges. Microsoft's Talking Barney? Hacked. Lego's
fancy robot kit, Mindstorm? Hacked. What will be the next victim?
Big Mouth Billy Bass, probably. Its specs are laid out on
www.howstuffworks.com, but its tiny, tiny brain has apparently not
yet been hijacked.
''Every Christmas I ask for a toy to get so I can hack it,'' said
Scott McDonnell, 27, of Grand Rapids, Mich. This year, he wants a
wireless toy video camera. He plans to connect it to a
radio-controlled car and get a driver's-eye view on his television
Whereas some see all this as pure play, others have proclaimed
the hacked Furby to be a mascot for the ''open source movement,''
which some analysts say holds the potential to revolutionize the
business of high technology.
Instead of fighting off the public's efforts to modify
products, open source companies strive to make their products easy
to modify, even publishing details that some competing companies
would consider to be trade secrets. Their goal is to leverage the
free labor of strangers on the Internet who are happy to soup up
their products for free and share the improvements with the world.
''What we have here is another example of the open source wave
that is sweeping the computer industry now,'' said Peter van der
Linden, a book author and software engineer at Sun Microsystems who
sponsored a $250 Hack Furby contest that Gibbons won last month.
''Companies that try to stop it are missing the point, and missing a
Sometimes toy hackers have an overtly political motive. In 1993,
an organization calling itself the B.L.O. (Barbie Liberation
Organization) switched the voice boxes of Barbie dolls and G.I.
Joes, and then secretly placed them in stores across the United
States to be resold. That Christmas, parents reported that their
children had opened up Barbies that said, ''Eat lead, Cobra!'' and
G.I. Joes that said, in a high-pitched voice, ''Want to go
Yet, ''even something as simple as hacking Furby can be political
because it interrupts the normal patterns of commerce,'' said Duane
Dibbley, a spokesman for rtmark, a group that sponsors creative
left-wing protests and was behind the Barbie switch. Especially at a
time of year when commercial indulgence reaches its apex, Dibbley
said, people who customize toys serve as ''valuable reminders that
we are first and foremost people, not consumers.''
Most toy hackers have little to say about political protest, and
many have stories of childhoods lived amid disassembled radios,
laser ray gun carcasses, and the minor household appliance that just
wouldn't quite go back together. ''We had some animated discussions
about that with my parents,'' said van der Linden, 44.
On the Internet, like-minded toy manipulators can share their
exploits and their secrets. There is a Web site that features a
''Furby autopsy,'' innards exposed. At the how it works site, the
inside of the animatronic, plastic fish looks like a sad, bleached
skeleton. Another shows how to reprogram ''Speak & Spell.''
Elsewhere, an extensive engineering paper on the dissection of
Barney is freely available.
Hacking Furby is very difficult, said Gibbons, estimating that it
took him hundreds of hours. Even now, the kit can be used only by
someone with a serious engineering background - just the
''uber-geeks'' - he said. Still, he hopes to be able to offer a
preassembled version, and says that he and others are working on a
kind of Furby operating system (FurbOS) that will make the system
easier to program. As this work progresses, van der Linden and
Gibbons said, Furby could be taught to play chess, randomly change
the television station, or accept software downloads from the
infrared port of a PalmPilot.
''You could write a utility for the PalmPilot and you could trade
files,'' said Gibbons, of Calgary. ''You could have a Furby brain
One woman contacted van der Linden to say that her autistic son
responded so well to a Furby that she wondered if it could be loaded
with English phrases instead of the ''Furbish'' the boy was now
Tiger Electronics, the company that makes Furby, said that it,
too, has heard stories of autistic children finding inspiration in
the toy, but that it opposes the hacking effort, whatever the
''Once the consumer purchases the toy, it's really out of our
hands,'' said Lana Simon, a spokeswoman for Tiger. But ''we don't
recommend tinkering with or playing with any of the electronic
Mitchel Resnick, a professor at the MIT Media Laboratory, said he
thinks our society misunderstands the tinkering spirit.
He recalled the character Sid in the movie ''Toy Story,'' who
lives in the gloomy house next door and puts his toys together in
unexpected ways. ''It's a shame they are demonizing kids like
that,'' said Resnick, who dug up his backyard several times when he
was young to build miniature golf courses.
Hacker McDonnell agreed that his own work, while sometimes
misunderstood, is a labor of love, and that he still dreams of
learning enough so that he can become a toy designer someday.
''She doesn't know it yet, but I have my eye on my mom's dancing
Santa,'' he said. ''It might just have to disappear, sacrificed in
the name of science.''