Toy hacking as new art form

Hackers are tweaking tech gadgets – legally – with creative results


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Hacking and toys are both getting a bad rap. More than 70,000 websites were hacked last week through an SQL injection attack. And several months ago, California’s attorney general sued 20 companies for making toys that contained “unlawful quantities of lead.”

But what if you combined hacking and toys? The result is a form of creative engineering that is changing how people view electronics, giving new life to same-old products. Call them mashups for gadget fiends.

Last week, a toy hacking workshop took place in London, England, run by tech consultancy Tinker.it.

The goal of the workshop (the first of five) was to familiarize people with “low-level electronics” so they can dive deep into the guts of an everyday toy and tweak its design or function. These workshops go by the appropriate moniker Hardcore Hardware Hacking, or H3.

“Usually, a good toy hack is one that really brings out the properties of your toy and makes people see the toy in a different way because of what you’ve made it do,” says Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, CEO of Tinker.it. The workshops enable people to play with electronics in an open-ended fashion, whatever their background or technology experience.

For example, a teddy bear was dissected and fused with an alarm clock so it could act as the remote snooze button for the radio. Simply squeeze the bear to give yourself 10 more minutes of sleep.

“The cheaper a toy is, the more likely it is to be hackable,” says Deschamps-Sonsino.

Then there are the more advanced projects, like a touch-enabled violin blended with plants, currently on display at an exhibition at Paris’s Hungarian Institute. If people stroke the leaves of these “whining plants,” a violin plays a certain tune. The same exhibition also features toy rabbits programmed to dance the “electric boogie.”

All fun and games? Or is there a philosophical layer beneath these hacks? “Hacking a toy is the best way to know how simply or badly it’s made,” Deschamps-Sonsino notes. “It’s a good educational exercise because it pushes people to think about what’s behind everyday objects instead of simply accepting them as they are.”

A game animator from San Francisco has also caught on to the toy-hacking trend. I-Wei Huang creates steam-powered robots by “recycling” steam engines, trains and radio-control kits. One of his steam-powered gadgets can pull Huang on a skateboard.

“I basically just try to do what hasn’t been done before, or put some sort of twist on something with the use of steam power,” Huang says. “I try my best to make them run as smoothly as I can while still paying close attention to aesthetics.”

He admits he enjoys “creating stuff that has no real purpose,” but the real pleasure comes from seeing people interact with his devices. “I try to make machines with character, so some of the most rewarding moments for me are when people comment on how cute they are or talk to them as if they are little live creatures.”

Deschamps-Sonsino hopes toy hackers can feel good about what they do even as they dismantle their favourite plaything from yesteryear. “If we can raise awareness with these workshops – to let people see that they can also be crafty with electronics – they might not feel as tempted to buy something pre-made.”

tech@nowtoronto.com

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