A very curious hobby

`Hardware hacking': With several books out on the subject, the pastime of re-engineering technology just for the heck of it seems to be making a comeback.

March 04, 2004|By Mike Langberg | Mike Langberg,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Most of us look at a toaster and see a kitchen appliance for crisping bread. Scott Fullam looks at a toaster and sees an engineering challenge, compelling him to open it up and make it do something the manufacturer never intended.

The result: a toaster that burns the words "hot" or "cool" on the side of a slice of bread.

Fullam, a 37-year-old computer consultant in Menlo Park, Calif., is at the forefront of a new trend called "hardware hacking." Or maybe it's an old trend - teen-agers in the 1950s who turned ordinary cars into hot rods by modifying the engines and bodies were driven by the same desire to take everyday objects in new directions.

Hacking has gotten a bad name in recent years, becoming linked in the public eye to criminal invasions of computer networks. But true hackers, unlike those who stray over the legal limits, are motivated only by curiosity.

Thirty years ago, hackers built some of the first personal computers from scrounged spare parts. Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak is the most famous example; he created the legendary Apple I to impress fellow members of the Homebrew Computer Club.

But computers quickly evolved to the point where modifying the hardware made little sense, so hackers instead turned to software tricks - and more particularly to probing computer networks. Now, greatly increased security is making network hacking much harder and legally tenuous.

At the same time, there's an explosion of smart consumer gadgets that cry out for hacking, from personal digital assistants and wireless phones to digital video recorders and MP3 music players.

The hardware hacking renaissance is coming into full bloom with the arrival of two new books: Hardware Hacking Projects for Geeks, by Fullam, and Hardware Hacking: Have Fun While Voiding Your Warranty, edited by Joe Grand.

These books explain in careful detail, accompanied with step-by-step photographs, how to rewire a toaster, add a bigger antenna to a wireless computer network card or build a "cubicle intrusion detector" that flashes a light whenever someone walks into your office space.

This is the crest of a hardware-hacking wave; there are already three different books on modifying TiVo digital video recorders - Hacking TiVo, Hacking the TiVo and TiVo Hacks. And there's Hacking the Xbox: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering, along with a long list of titles on the more established pursuits of computer hardware and network hacking.

Fullam followed the traditional hardware hacking career trajectory. As a child in upstate New York, he played with model rockets and airplanes before moving on to electronics. At age 13, he announced he would study electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - and did.

After working as a toy designer in New York - where he helped create Teen Talk Barbie - he came to Silicon Valley in 1992 to join Apple's research staff. Then came stints with several start-ups and consulting work.

But Fullam missed hacking.

"I really wanted to get my hands dirty again," he said last month, sitting in his garage, which is bulging from floor to ceiling with disemboweled gadgetry.

"Software hacking gets all the publicity, as I look at it. I wanted to change that," he added.

So Fullam spent two years working on his book, published by O'Reilly and Associates. About two-thirds of the 15 projects are his own creation, the others are his reconstruction of ideas borrowed from others.

A few of the projects are practical, most are whimsical, and none is justified by the outcome alone - the journey is the reward.

"The hope is to inspire people, through role models, to pick up a screwdriver and a soldering iron and to start hacking," writes Andrew Huang in the introduction to his Hacking the Xbox. "Instilling this sort of exploratory spirit in the younger generations will be important in the long run for preserving the pool of talented engineers that drove the technology revolution."

A worthy goal, even at the expense of the occasional skinned knuckle, solder burn on the carpet or blown fuse.

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