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Old 7th September 2004, 05:57 PM   #1
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Default Hack or tinker ? -- a great article !

describes below how to get more miles out of your WIFI:

So Your Roomba
Vacuums ... Does It
Also Take Pictures?

Tinkerers Make Cool Devices
Cooler to Amuse Selves;
Better Wi-Fi on the Cheap
By CHARLES FORELLE
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
September 7, 2004; Page A1

Phillip Torrone and his wife share their Seattle house with five Sony Aibo dog robots, two Segway motorized scooters, a suitcase-size robot whose brain is a laptop computer, and dozens of other gadgets. With the help of small digital video cameras, Mr. Torrone is modifying the Segway to automatically follow a pink ball. The laptop robot is trained to follow the Segway. When the robot gets close enough, it chirps out "ma-ma." Mr. Torrone has also modified his Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner to putter around the house and take pictures, periodically sending a Web log snapshots of electrical outlets and a dog bed.

Mr. Torrone is one of a growing breed of "hardware hackers" -- computer and electronics savants who rip apart gear to change both form and function. Their hobby is swiftly spreading: Reports of successful "hacks" often pop up online days or weeks after new videogame machines, cellphones or other gadgets hit stores, sometimes riling hardware makers who aren't pleased to see their creations tampered with. At least a half-dozen instructional hardware-hacking books have appeared in the past year, and several more are on the way.

Joe Grand, a San Diego hardware designer and editor of "Hardware Hacking: Have Fun While Voiding Your Warranty," is working on a book on hacking videogame machines, adding such things as customized lighting, higher-quality video and new controllers. He normally gives talks on computer security for groups including the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, but a recent hardware-hacking lecture he gave at a tech conference in Las Vegas was so packed, some people in the audience had to sit on the dais.


A tripod-mounted wok skimmer makes a long-range antenna for wireless Internet connections.


Hardware hackers say a flood of low-price, highly sophisticated consumer electronics has ushered in a renaissance in the dabbling spirit.

"These are pretty exciting times," says Mr. Torrone, who is on sabbatical from his day job in advertising. "We are starting to see basement tinkerers like we used to see back in the 1950s." For years, it has been software hackers, whose tools are a keyboard and mouse, who embodied the computer subculture. Now, hardware is getting cooler, says Mr. Grand, who felt like the "odd man out" in his days as a member of the Boston hacker collaborative known as the L0pht in the 1990s.

Sometimes tinkering can make money. Shortly after the MuVo2, a portable music player made by Creative Labs Inc., hit the market for $199 earlier this year, hackers discovered that its core was a miniature disk drive with massive four-gigabyte storage capacity that Hitachi Ltd. was selling separately to digital-camera users and others for $499. Soon, disk drives stripped out of the MuVo were showing up on eBay for around $250. The empty players -- which could be refitted with standard memory chips -- fetch $35 or so.

More often, hackers are driven by the need for improvised solutions -- or a desire to innovate in the theater of the technologically absurd.

While he was working at the computer-security company AtStake near Boston four years ago, Mr. Grand says too many colleagues were taking food that wasn't theirs from the office refrigerator. So he put the fridge into the cabinet of a big, unused Digital Equipment Corp. minicomputer. To the inside of the door, he bolted a custom-made circuit board that read employees' identification badges and unlocked for authorized eaters only. The setup was also rigged so Mr. Grand could log onto a Web site and monitor who was having late-night munchies.

Benjamin Heckendorn, a graphic designer in Wisconsin, specializes in vintage technology -- turning clunky old game machines, like the Atari 2600 (circa 1977), into smaller portable versions. He saws off extraneous bits and pieces and rewires the circuit board to fit inside a small case that surrounds a flat-panel, liquid-crystal display screen.

His moment of inspiration came as he watched the movie "The Green Mile." Bored as the three-hour prison drama wore on, he found himself thinking, "I wish I had my Game Boy." Then it dawned on him that his model lacked an illuminated screen, making it useless in a darkened theater. Some weeks later, he sketched the blueprint for his first portable Atari -- with built-in lighting -- and now sometimes sells his portables to vintage-game fans for $400 to $700.

Mr. Heckendorn has dubbed another recent triumph the "MGDp" -- a working, used computer that fits inside an 18-pack of Miller Genuine Draft beer. Mr. Heckendorn reinforced the beer box with aluminum, disemboweled an old PC, stuffed its essentials into the box, and cut holes for cords. It is well camouflaged against theft in his parked car, but he insists, "I would be more upset if they actually took an eighteen-er of beer than that old computer."

Stan Swan, an electronics teacher in Wellington, New Zealand, greatly boosts the range of wireless Wi-Fi Internet connections. He has constructed a custom antenna for his laptop computer out of a standard, finger-size Wi-Fi receiver, several feet of computer cable, a garden-hose coupler and a cheap Chinese skimmer normally used to fish things out of woks. The skimmer has a parabolic shape, much as a satellite dish does, that focuses the signal. And the gaps in the mesh allow wind to pass through for outdoor use. Mr. Swan, who says he is "very fond of Chinese food," once used a wok itself as his antenna, but gusts of wind kept knocking it over.

The Wi-Fi receiver costs about $25, the skimmer less than $10. With a 12-inch-diameter model, Mr. Swan says he can usually pick up Wi-Fi "hotspots" three miles away if he has an unobstructed line of sight. Consumer Wi-Fi equipment usually has a range of no more than a few hundred yards.

Mr. Swan, 55 years old, attributes his solution to old-fashioned New Zealand ingenuity born of the days when the country's isolation made it expensive to import consumer goods. "People of my age have very much been raised to improvise and not necessarily go out and purchase something off the shelf," says Mr. Swan. "Kiwis think around a problem and come up with a cost-effective idea."

Hackers sometimes play a cat-and-mouse game with hardware manufacturers riled by product modifications. Things got testy several years ago with Digital Convergence Corp., the now-defunct maker of the hand-held CueCat barcode scanner, which was given away free to consumers for plugging into their PCs. By waving the scanner over barcodes in newspaper and magazine ads, users could go instantly to Web sites with information about the advertised products, but their movements were being tracked for marketing purposes. Hardware hackers figured out how to use the scanners to reach the sites -- or read any bar code -- without leaving a trail for marketers. The secret: snipping a wire to circumvent a tiny chip on the CueCat's circuit board. Digital Convergence's lawyers sent cease-and-desist letters to people who posted Web sites with instructions on how to hack the machines, but the company ceased operating before the matter came to a head.

Microsoft Corp. changed the design of its Xbox videogame machine after hackers modified it so they could install Linux, a free operating system that is a Microsoft nemesis. In 2002, Andrew "bunnie" Huang, an MIT-trained engineer, figured out that data briefly passed between two chips on the Xbox motherboard without any encryption to hide its contents, allowing a way for the system to be modified. Microsoft quickly changed the security. Nvidia Corp., a Santa Clara, Calif., vendor that custom-built the parts for Microsoft, found itself with a surfeit of the old chips. That accounted for part of a $21 million inventory write-down the company took that year. In a letter to a tech news site, a spokesman blamed "the MIT hacker."
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Old 7th September 2004, 07:42 PM   #2
johnnyx is offline johnnyx  United Kingdom
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Interesting stuff. I heard about another guy who used an optical mouse, which are now cheap, as the eye for a robot. He added a lens, and tapped into the output of one of the chips, which gave outputs for direction of movement etc. Forget where I saw it...
It's not audio, but it's DIY.
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Old 7th September 2004, 08:16 PM   #3
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I guess that in the Video forum we could post the fact that TIVO's are readily hacked -- if you want to pop in a bigger hard drive.
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