A while ago you had the chance to ask gamer and console modder extraordinaire Ben Heck about his favorite mods, hacks, and what he sees coming in the future. Below you'll find his answers to your questions.Closed ecosystem
by i kan reed
By attempting to inject openness into an intentionally closed ecosystem, do you see yourself as an enabler to that closed ecosystem?
That is to say, open standards are the default on modular personal computers, and almost invariably not present on video game consoles. By giving people who want flexibility a means to use consoles, do you see yourself as inflating those markets and doing long-term harm to actual open systems?
Ben: In terms of consoles, there is a reason the system is closed. Having a closed system is a strength, really, because even when a console comes out, the tech is already a year or two old. By making a closed system, developers know exactly what they can get out of it. It is not a moving target like a PC or a Mac and there is nothing inherently wrong with that.
As far as hacking is concerned, we are just physically hacking things, not changing the file system or putting in strange mods. The system itself has not inherently changed; therefore, the act of hacking is not as harmful or potentially dangerous.
Ben, When you're generally designing enclosures for your hacked consoles, do you tend to start with an overall design first, or do you start designing around the mainboards and then attempt to make things look nice later in the design process?
Ben: The first thing I do is design the component going inside of it. A hacked console can only be as small as its largest component. Usually, a console will contain a large component, or problem part, like a disk drive or hard drive so I find that part and work around it. Then I make it look nice. If the design is not perfect, I try to make the limitations look like features.
Ever get any Law suits / DMCA / banned issues with
Ever get any Law suits / DMCA / banned issues with the hacks?
Ben: This hasn’t been an issue.
What's missing from consoles?
by Anonymous Coward
What new features or technologies do you do see missing from the current gaming systems that you believe would beneficial, and why?
Ben: I don’t know how much is missing, but it would be great if the new gaming consoles had mouse and keyboard control. Currently, mouse and keyboard control lies strictly in the realm of PCs.
Some sort of expandability might be nice, but the consoles do quite a lot of cool stuff as they are. When the 360 and the PS3 were launched, all they really did was play games and now, eight years later, you can rent movies and stream things from your other devices. A ton of functionality has been added. Other than that, it might be nice to have a better way to charge the controllers.
Ultimately, and more generally, consoles need to be cognizant of smartphones and tablets. Devices like those have a certain functionality that people enjoy. Consumers have higher expectations now and consoles need to live up to those expectations. For example, my Android phone updates apps automatically so that, when I need to open something, I don’t need to wait around. Consoles could benefit from having something like that, although I believe they have made strides in this area.
Best input device?
What do you think it is the best input device that you used for consoles? Why?
Ben: There are certain types of games that I like playing on consoles and certain types that I like playing on a PC. Fast, twitchy shooter games are better on a PC because you have a mouse and the control is much better. A mouse is a fixed point so in a shooter game, for example, you can aim up and hold the position. Trying to replicate that sensation in the living room with a controller or joystick in your hand is more difficult because it calls for larger motions which exert more energy.
Valve has a new controller that they are trying but ultimately bringing a mouse into the living room, in terms of offering the same sort of position control, would be the Holy Grail.
Weirder/non-common Input device?
Which one is the weirder/non-common input device that you used? Any comments about it, why did you like it or not?
Ben: Well, I remember all of the weird stuff that we had in the late 80s and early 90s such as the Power Glove and UForce. The Power Glove was this ridiculous glove that you put on and played your Nintendo with but it had some interesting tech. The Wii, for example, uses some of that same sensor tech.
UForce, which was a device that you used to punch in the air and play Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, sort of reminds me of Leap Motion. It’s interesting to see the technology behind the weird things I remember playing with come back around.
When adding functionality to existing products that are made of molded plastic, what do you do when you just don't have enough room?
Ben: You make it bigger! No, but seriously, you can use smaller components, such as surface mounts or smaller wires, that normally would not be used. You have to think of different ways to solve the problem. Change the design or develop a clever work around. If that doesn’t work, you could always remove extra things from the component, like a rumble pack, or shave down the circuit boards. There is almost always something you can remove.
Generally, though, I wouldn’t start something unless I knew that I could finish it.
Any plans to improve your current designs?
I looked into the Access Controller a while back for my mom (she doesn't get out much and she has a tremor in her right hand), it looks like it might be good for turn-based games, but the design doesn't seem like it would work well for anything requiring real time input on both analogs. I don't know if it's even possible to improve on that design in that way, but more generally, I was just wondering if you have any plans to go back and look at ways of improving some of the older hacks and designs you've done?
Ben: Right now, I’m working on some accessibility controller mods for the next generation. I’m using my 3D printer to develop better ways to make them, but a lot of the hacks for the old media consoles have become irrelevant and are not worth going back to.
There are some projects I’ve done on element14’s The Ben Heck Show that I would like to revisit. I would love to get the automatic can crusher to work. The Raspberry Pi portable gaming system is one that I would go back and revisit. If anything, though, I prefer to keep going forward rather than go back and re-do things – to take my good ideas and progress them.
clay + sculpting...
About the "clay" you use for sculpting (I've always thought of you as an artist + sculptor): Any tech you wished was mainstream, or maybe soon to invented, that you'd like to sculpt with? Any older more retro components that are limiting what projects you'd like to do? p.s. Love your work, followed for a while here & Engadget.
Ben: I wish there would some sort of printable circuit board, like a desktop printer for circuit boards or something that a 3D printer would make. Making PCBs is still a matter of sending away to get the boards. Some people etch boards themselves but that is a lot of work. I would like to push a button and make a circuit board right on my desk.
In terms of older, more retro components that get in the way, maybe the larger through-hole things. For example, if you’re trying to hack down a motherboard and you have an Ethernet port stacked on top of two USB ports, something like that takes up a lot of space. If anything, things keep getting smaller and smaller so it’s less of a problem.
Effect of new hardware design trends
Computer hardware is tending to be more and more integrated and consolidated, not just within each console generation (the first PS2 eventually consolidated the GPU and CPU in one component) but between generations (the PS4 launches with a single component for GPU and CPU). Does this help you hack by giving you a smaller device, or does it hinder you by giving you less flexibility?
Ben: It sounds obvious but I would say, to some extent, both. If you look at the new video game consoles, they both have combined GPU and CPU, called APUS, so they are already consolidated quite a bit. Hacking gives insight because it allows you to see the evolution between different generations. Even if a new generation does not necessarily look different on the outside, it does inside. From what I’ve seen from these new consoles, they are quite efficiently built.
In a way, it makes it easier because the consoles are more compact and more power efficient when combining functionality.
The major thing that has changed that makes it harder to hack is the inclusion of lead-free solder. Lead-free solder is a lot harder to work with, especially if you are trying to remove components, because you need so much more heat to work with. There are times when I’ve actually used a blowtorch or hot air gun; versus 30 years ago when the old, leaded solder would come out easily from, say, a Nintendo motherboard.
Generally, though, I like how compact the consoles have become.