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What the hack!

KARTHIK SUBRAMANIAN
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The moment you say the word ‘hack,' the image it conjures up for most is that of sophisticated bank robbers from a Hollywood heist movie punching in codes into a computer to open a safe. If you are curious and adventurous in equal measure, and don't worry too much about company warranties, it's actually fun to hack your own gadgets, writes KARTHIK SUBRAMANIAN

HOT PROPERTY Microsoft's Xbox Kinect Technology has captured the imagination of hackers worldwide
HOT PROPERTY Microsoft's Xbox Kinect Technology has captured the imagination of hackers worldwide

W hen prominent American television journalist Lesley Stahl interviewed Mark Zuckerberg last year for the television news feature ‘60 Minutes' on the CBS network, she asked the world's youngest self-made billionaire why there were posters all around the Palo Alto facility encouraging its employees to indulge in “hacking”.

As with everyone else, ‘hacking' evoked negative vibes in Lesley too.

As Zuckerberg explained later, “hacking” is not such a bad word after all. “It is, in fact, a compliment,” he clarified to the journalist. At Facebook, they organise overnight ‘hack contests' to get their engineers to develop incredibly fast software solutions.

While that has more to do with software hacking, punching and grinding through codes, something that only the geeks might attempt, there is yet another method of hacking the average gadget-user can try: open up your gadget and run some hacks that online communities have already developed. This can be a bit complicated and will require a basic level of understanding of technology. But it can be great fun.

Also bear in mind that hacking your gadget is most likely to make void the manufacturer's warranty.

Is it legal?

Let us get the big question out of the way first. Is hacking legal? It is legal if you are hacking your own gadget or software for personal reasons.

The logic is simple. You have paid to get your device and what you do with it is your business. If the gaming console has the capability to connect to Internet, why should it visit just the ‘online market' of the manufacturer? Why not browse the web via television? If it has a camera that can scan the players, why not use it to take photographs? Why not put your family photograph on the welcome screen?

A vibrant community of hackers develops personal solutions for just about every gadget out there. In some instances, these solutions are far more attractive than what the manufacturers offer as packaged solutions.

A recent case in point is that of the Microsoft Xbox Kinect. The revolutionary motion capture controller that allows its users to directly interact with the game happening on screen has had some of the most eye-popping hacks. From 3-D image capture to an interactive puppet to “an invisible man” camouflage, Kinect hackers have taken the Web by storm. Just search for “Xbox Kinect Hacks” on YouTube or visit www.kinecthacks.com.

In a first of its kind, Microsoft has gone ahead and welcomed the hackers to exploit their system and come up with innovative solutions every one could use. The BBC had reported in February that Microsoft would, in fact, distribute ‘software development kits' later this year for developers to experiment with further.

For the average users, ‘hacking' the gadgets could mean just identifying these hacks and, in most cases, breaking into their systems and writing some new software on the devices. This does require a fair amount of diligence but it's no rocket science either.

My own experience with hardware hacking was with the gaming console the Nintendo Wii. Wii Brew (www.wiibrew.org) is a vibrant community of developers, most of whom are students, I suspect, who put out simple, yet useful programs that could maximise the Wii from being just a gaming household to a more full-fledged device. My favourite hack is Wii Radio, a Shoutcast client that serves up hundreds of Internet radio stations on the Wii.

A word of caution here. While hacking for personal purposes is fine and even fun, ‘cracking' of licensed software is not. Anything that violates copyright and abets piracy is very much illegal.

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