Hacking the cuteness out of Furby

By Mark Gibbs, Network World |  Tech & society, Tech & society

Cute is something that should be firmly stamped out with unremitting savagery. Perhaps the definitive and best-known example of cute is the appalling song that accompanies that most horrific of "entertainment" rides at Disneyland. Of course I refer to "It's a Small World."

The ride is disgustingly cute but is eclipsed by its accompanying song. Just 30 seconds of that nonstop, saccharine ditty is enough to have me grinding my teeth and cursing Robert and Richard Sherman -- Academy Award-winning composers -- who penned the song in 1966.

Which all leads nicely into this week's topic: Furby.

Furby, for those of you who have managed to avoid it by dint of not being parents of young children, not watching popular television and never going into any toy shops, is a robot doll. It is a marvel of engineering, and it retails for as little as $20.

Anyway, this robot (and it really is a robot, not just an animated toy) not only moves its mouth, its ears and its eyes (although the device doesn't move from wherever you put it), it also bounces in place. Add to that sensing the light level, being tilted or anything touching its mouth, belly or back, as well as audio input and infrared sending and receiving (for communications between Furbys!) along with sound generation, and you have a pretty amazing package (check out the Furby autopsy at www.phobe.com/furby/).

Cute enters the picture as, true to its name, the thing is covered in hideous synthetic fur and it babbles in a grating, sing-song " language " that the manufacturer, Tiger Electronics (part of Hasbro), is pleased to call "Furbish" -- see the remarkable LangMaker site at www.langmaker.com/furbish.htm for much more than you might expect on Furbish in particular, and invented languages in general.

In January 1999, Peter van der Linden, an engineer in Silicon Valley, issued the "Hack Furby" challenge (see

www.afu.com/fur.html) -- a challenge to make Furby reprogrammable -- with a prize of $250. Needless to say, the winner wasn't going to retire on the basis of the prize, but that didn't stop Jeffrey Gibbons, a Canadian computer consultant, from trying.

Of course as you might imagine, hacking Furby doesn't exactly delight the toy's creator Dave Hampton or Tiger. The last thing they wanted was a "potty-mouthed" Furby (something that was easily done to Microsoft's Barney robot toy).

Gibbons' solution (see www.afu.com/furby/winner.html and www.furbyupgrade.20m.com/) was not to actually get inside the Furby electronics -- a rather difficult task, as they are custom chips encased in epoxy -- but to produce replacement circuit boards to substitute those inside Furby.

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