Hacking the cuteness out of Furby

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.

Voila! A programmable Furby with an RS-232 interface, much enhanced IR communications and all code that will be eventually open source. You can buy the upgrade kit (http://canada-shops.com/stores/furbyupgrade/) or at least you can try -- at the moment its payment system is dowwn, and it suggests you use PayPal (www.paypal.com). I tried to use PayPal, but I will now be sending Gibbons and Co. a check . . . and I bet you can guess what next week's topic is.

Be that as it may, it turns out that the Furby Hackers have loftier goals. They plan to create an operating system for Furby based on Philos (a freeware multitasking kernel that I cannot find anything about) that they refer to as FurbOS.

Of course, Tiger may yet take them to court, although as Gibbons et al. point out, to modify a Furby you have to buy a Furby. Plus there is a potential public relations windfall here for the product -- see the story about the autistic child at www.afu.com/furby/winner.html.

So I'm off now to send a check for my upgrade kit so I can hack my son's Furby. You can bet that when I'm finished, there'll be nothing cute about it.

This story, "Hacking the cuteness out of Furby " was originally published by Network World.

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