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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Nation | World
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Hackers in toyland

Some find delight in reprogramming Furby and friends

By Gareth Cook, Globe Staff, 12/23/2000

uddly little 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 money.''

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 in.

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 screen.

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 big market.''

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 shopping?''

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 trading party.''

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 learning.

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 purpose.

''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 components.''

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.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 12/23/2000.
Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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