CrunchGear Interview: Ben Heckendorn

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BenHeck

I recently sat down with the king of gadget modders, Benjamin J. Heckendorn.

Ben recently spoke at the Games for Health conference here in Boston, where he talked a bit about his Access Controller, which was born from a request for a controller that could be used with one hand by a soldier who had lost his arm in combat.

Heckendorn also brought up the idea that Microsoft ought to make a “Brain Box” available for the Xbox 360, which would enable people to make their own controllers without having to deal with licensing issues. Microsoft would still make money by licensing and selling the Brain Box, while hackers and modders would be free to create unique controllers like the Access Controller without having to go through the expense and legal trouble of getting the controllers approved for retail sale. Sort of a standardized peripheral concept, if you will.

Ben spent about a half hour with me before his presentation. Here’s the transcript:

CG: When you were a kid growing up in Wisconsin, what’s your first memory of something you ripped apart – your first mod?

BH: Oh, that’s a good question. Let me think. Well, I had an erector set so I would build things and then rip them apart. Because, you know, I only had one erector set so I had to recycle it. I was “going green” even back then.

CG: Were you one of those kids that just took anything apart that you could get your hands on?

BH: Yeah, I’d take apart old radios a lot. And probably my old Atari computer, which I still have – I used to take that thing apart all the time. Sometimes it was because Pepsi had been spilled on it. And usually I’d try to put stuff back together, that’s always the trick. As long as I could get stuff put back together, my mom didn’t really care. When I got a little older, I had more complicated things like camcorders. I would take that kind of stuff apart.

CG: Did you ever take something apart that you couldn’t get back together? I remember as a kid taking the family computer apart and I couldn’t get it back together. My parents were infuriated.

BH: I’m sure there was stuff. In general, usually there was always a screw left over. Even now, I don’t think you can put something back together properly if there isn’t a screw left over. I think they just put in extra screws to be left over. You take a laptop apart and there are always screws left over. But it’s all over-engineered anyway. It’ll be all right.

Dreamcast was something I took apart. I was going to make a portable version but I couldn’t really figure out how to do it. Other people have figured out how to do it now, though, so I’m glad. Now I don’t really need to do it. But I never really put that back together. So I do have a lot of sort of bastard, forlorn circuit boards laying around in a bastard, forlorn bucket.

CG: What’s your favorite mod that you’ve done?

BH: I’m pretty proud of the Commodore 64 laptop because, aesthetically, it looked great. I’m actually building another one and the intention is to auction it off for charity. It took me about two years of tinkering to get one to work, then I redid everything from scratch in about a week and a half. And now I’m trying to build this other one and it’s having problems, so it’s taking me longer.

It’s like one of those things where you have to go through two motherboards for some reason. Anyway, it’s going to have the better disk drive access system that people had been asking about. Like, “Why doesn’t it have this?” The 1541 Ultimate or something like that. So it’s slightly improved but it pretty much looks the same.

So it was one of those things where when I was painting it and putting it together I was like, “Damn, this looks good.” I’m usually not too self-conscious about stuff like that but with this one I was like, “This looks good.”

CG: With your mods, do you usually come up with all the ideas yourself or do you take a lot of ideas from your website’s forums and other people who follow your work?

BH: Any more, it’s almost exclusively what people input to me. Basically I’ll sit there checking Facebook and wasting time on the internet and if an interesting request comes in and they’re willing to pay, I’ll do it.

As long as it’s interesting. That’s kind of how I got into accessibility controllers, because I’m like, “Oh, this is interesting,” and kind of an interesting challenge. There will always be e-mails like, “I would like a Gamecube mixed with a coffee pot, blender, iPod, and floatation device,” kind of like you’d see in the SkyMall catalog, and stuff like that doesn’t really interest me.

But yeah, most of it is user submitted now. I very rarely build anything on my own accord any more. Actually, I am putting together another Pelican Case laptop thing for Xbox kind of for fun, but mostly just to use up parts. So mostly user submissions now. They’re the ones that want this stuff, not me [laughs]. My own Xbox 360 isn’t even modded.

CG: Yeah, that’s my next question. What’s your house like? Do you have stuff coming out of the walls and zip lines and stuff like that?

BH: No, you’d be surprised. Except for my work area, it’s quite clean. I have an Atari hooked up to my living room television now, which is a great conversation piece. It still works.

There’s a guy on my forum who’s name is Parker Dillmann, from a college down in Texas, and he came up with a really cool mod called the Longhorn Engineer Video Mod. It’s a little circuit board that he made, and you hook it up to your Atari and it gives you composite video and S-Video. It works great. So I got one of those from him at a convention, pimped it on my site, and I use it on my Atari.

I had a hell of a time getting the Atari to work at all. I have a big BRAVIA TV and, at first, the Atari didn’t work and I had to really tweak my own video mod to get a picture to show up, but Parker’s mod worked great. So the moral of the story is, yeah, he’s got a good video mod at LonghornEngineer.com.

So yeah, I do have an Atari, which is a fairly geeky thing to have on your TV. I used to try to have every system possible hooked up but now I just have Xbox 360 and Atari. That’s about it. You don’t have to move a circuit board just to sit on the couch, though. Because who wants that?

CG: Nobody! You’d rip your pants! So which console do you find is easiest to mod?

BH: Modern consoles? Because all-time, it’d be Atari. But for modern consoles, the Wii is pretty easy to work with mostly because it’s simpler and smaller. The Xbox 360 is actually fairly easy to mod but obviously since they double as nuclear blast furnace ovens, you have to think about heat and whatnot.

PlayStation 3 is definitely the hardest. I think with Sony – first, there’s not enough games for it – but hardware-wise, it’s very well done. It’s a very nice piece of equipment. But of course it’s all proprietary because it’s Sony. I like Sony but they kind of take the long way around the barn. I love Sony, though. Everything I buy is Sony. Except for my Xbox 360.

CG: One of our writers, Matt Burns, is dying to know: what is your favorite tool?

BH: My favorite tool? Oh gosh. That’s a good question. I love when I get good questions. Usually it’s always the same ten questions in the same order. My favorite tool?

For the longest time I didn’t use dremels, but now I swear by it. It’s like my third arm – or whatever number arm would be appropriate for your readers. Believe it or not, I have this little pair of tweezers that I got at, like, Wal-Mart. I’ve had them for about ten years and I actually probably use those the most – just a little simple pair of tweezers that are very useful because my fingers are only so small.

I do have some favorite screwdrivers from back when they used to make the things in Japan, probably back from around 1984. I still use them every day.

CG: Do you have any ridiculously complicated and expensive equipment that you use or is it mostly old-school screwdrivers and tweezers and stuff like that?

BH: Except when I have stuff done on a CNC machine, it’s mostly old-school. I have a belt sander and I’d like to have a drill press, I should really get one of those. Maybe I’ll ask nicely for one next Christmas. Not really, though, no. I do have an infrared thermometer, which is kind of fun. So I can point it at the Xbox 360 and say, “Oh, look, ten thousand degrees.”

The Xbox 360 is actually much cooler now that they’re on the third revision and the GPU and CPU are both 65 nanometers. It’s probably almost up to 30 degrees cooler but, yeah, that hardware definitely runs hot.

I think that – and I’ll probably never get a job at Microsoft if I say this – if you look at the Xbox, if Microsoft designed a car, it’d have no front grill, no radiator, and the exhaust would just kind of float off the engine. That’s kind of how the Xbox 360 is built.

I don’t know if you’ve ever taken apart a PlayStation 3, but it’s frickin’ awesome. Like all these heat pipes coming off the main chips, and there’s this fan that’s like six inches in diameter. So mostly at the base is this fan that’s turned by a big radiator. If you think of a Chevy Metro or a Smart Car, this is probably bigger than the radiators in those cars. But seriously, the whole bottom of the PS3 is basically metal, copper, fans, and cooling. Instead of, like, oh here’s some fans on the back that’ll just lazily pull out air.

It’s very well built – too expensive, though. Maybe that’s why it’s so expensive.

CG: Have you done any mods that have just gotten way too out of control? Any Frankenmods?

BH: I don’t know about, like, in scale or complexity but the original version of the Commodore 64 laptop was pretty much a complete and utter failure. The guy I was making it for was really patient with me but at one point, I was like, “Screw it,” and everything was scratched.

And I’ve done that before. I’ve built entire arcade cabinets – my friend wanted one for his company – so I tried to make this big fancy thing. It was all curvy and it looked like it was something from, like, Soylent Green or Computer Space. It was getting too complicated so I had to scrap it and just make an angular one, which was still fairly well done.

And I think I’m on the fourth year of trying to build a pinball machine. I love pinball. And I have this Neo Geo arcade cabinet that I built and I thought, “Has anyone tried to build a pinball machine from the ground up?” So I’m plugging away at that and I have a lot of the parts. The theme is “Bill Paxton Pinball.”

CG: Oh, nice!

BH: Because I wanted a theme and I was like, “What’s just ridiculous, but everyone understands it? Oh, Bill Paxton – the finest actor of our generation.” He’s got a lot of great quotes and I like cheesy actors like Bill Paxton and William Shatner.

CG: I used to perform at this improv place in Minneapolis and there was a show running there called Paxton versus Pullman. The whole premise was that nobody can ever tell which one is which.

BH: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s like all those mirror-mirror episodes where they’ve got the two Bills and someone yells “Shoot!” and the guy with the gun is like, “Which one?!”

One of them always has a goatee, and that’s how you know who’s who. [Laughs]

Check out BenHeck.com for more of Ben’s mods.

Here are some photos from Ben’s presentation at the Games for Health conference:

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