Free your gadgets

Milena Popova looks at why companies such as Sony and Apple are missing out by stifling attempts for users to hack their own products

Image: CC-AT-NC-SA Flickr: Antony Bennison

I would be willing to bet you a not-insubstantial amount of money that Steve Jobs would love to be able to say that the iPhone was the first mobile phone to control a space craft. But it's not going to be. Instead, British scientists are planning to put an Android phone - exact model to be confirmed - in space.

This may have something to do with Apple's closed approach to its hardware - something they have taken to extremes, for instance by using custom tamper-proof screws to make it more difficult for you to open, tinker with or repair the hardware you have legitimately bought from them.

In a complete u-turn on their previous position, Sony, too seem to have suddenly become incredibly precious about their hardware. Whereas previously they allowed third-party operating systems to be installed on their consoles, they are now suing people who have reverse engineered the PS3 to be able to do that. Anyone who ever visited the PS3 hacker GeoHot's website may find themselves embroiled in this particular mess too.

I would like to put it to you that through their actions companies like Apple and Sony not only prevent perfectly legitimate use of the products you have bought from them - they are also missing out on a lot of exciting opportunities. To illustrate this, I would like to bring to your attention a different shiny gaming platform, Microsoft's Kinect.

On the day the Kinect was released in the US, Adafruit Industries - a hacker/maker enterprise with an Open Source ethos - announced a bounty of initially $1000, later increased to $3000, for the first person to produce Open Source drivers for the new gadget. Microsoft were initially unimpressed, but after some internal realignment grudgingly conceded that maybe people were allowed to play with their toys after all - as long as they didn't call it hacking. [1]

This has given rise to an astounding array of Kinect hacks applications. You only need to search YouTube for "Kinect Hacks" to get an idea of what's going on. Some of my favourites include the Princess Leia demo ("Help me, Obi-wan!"), this incredibly cute puppet, and the Kinect air guitar - every middle-aged man's dream.

The Kinect Theremin remains unplayable, much like its real cousin. All of these hacks are enormous amounts of fun, but there's also a useful side to Kinect hacking. There are various attempts to create a Kinect-based Minority-Report-style user interface which could revolutionise the way we interact with computers. One Toronto hospital is experimenting with using the Kinect in the operating theatre, allowing surgeons to pull up patients' data and medical scan images and manipulate them without having to leave the sterile environment.

Back at Maker Faire I spoke to the guys from London Hackspace, creators of the Evil Genius Simulator, about their love of hardware hacking. Closed hardware, like the PS3 or various Apple devices, doesn't really stop them, they said - it makes hacking it more of a challenge, especially if the hardware is interesting, like the Kinect. It means getting to the point where you can do the really cool things with your new toy takes a little longer, as you have to reverse engineer it first.

This is also why they openly share the results of their reverse engineering efforts and their hacks - it makes it easier and faster for others to get on board. One passing comment really struck me. We were talking about why the PS3 got hacked and the the X-Box so far has been relatively safe. Apparently the way to keep your product safe from people wanting to do cool things with it to make it really boring. And none of us really want that, now do we?

The Kinect is not the only platform that lends itself to hacking. One of the London Hackspace Maker Faire projects was to hook up a Wii balance board to the wonderfully twee game SkiFree which delighted visitors visitors of a certain age while leaving the younger ones somewhat baffled. I have also seen some great music being made by waving Wii-motes around.

Whatever platform it's on, hardware hacking is all about retaining control of your gadgets, building understanding, and making some really cool things. It's about time companies like Apple and Sony understood that, far from threatening them, this only enriches their products and makes them more desirable.


[1] If in doubt, I am not using the Microsoft definition of hacking, or even the mainstream one. Instead, I prefer the older definition from the Jargon File/Hacker's Dictionary.

Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She tweets as @elmyra



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Comments (1)

  1. Jim Killock:
    Mar 24, 2011 at 12:16 PM

    Control of your gadgets comes on so many levels: technical, legal and practical. The dangers of losing our control seem pretty big to me, especially as much of the benefit we've accrued is through choosing the software we run on our PCs. Zittrain is great on what this might mean, losing the “generative” power of our devices.

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By Milena Popova on Mar 24, 2011

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