Tinkerers Push Game Consoles Past Playtime

First Published: Washington Post
Date Published: August 3 2001
Copyright © 2001 by Kevin Savetz

In 10 years, you may astound your kids by telling them that back in your day, video-game consoles had just one purpose -- playing video games.

Console manufacturers and home experimenters are working to extend their hardware beyond games: Sony's PlayStation 2 can play DVD movies, and the company is cooperating with America Online to bring instant messaging and Web browsing to the console. Microsoft's Xbox, to be released Nov. 8, will also include computer-like features -- for instance, a headset, for chat in online games, will also be used for "voice over IP" Internet phone calls.

But some people aren't waiting for corporations to develop new tricks for game consoles. Hobbyists are developing new applications for their favorite machines. The idea is to get a computer's capabilities -- most important, Internet access -- on much cheaper hardware, and, if possible, have some fun in the process.

A Prague company, Blokman Trading, has modified the open-source Linux operating system to run on the original Sony PlayStation. Runix (www.runix.ru) is a 26-megabyte download that must be compiled on a Linux PC, then copied onto a CD-ROM for a PlayStation to read.

Sony has created a version of Linux that runs on the PlayStation 2. The first shipment of 1,000 Linux kits -- complete with an add-on hard drive and Ethernet card -- were available only in Japan and sold out immediately. The Linux kits make it easier to develop new uses for the PS2, opening the platform to more developers.

"Now that the Linux kits are out there, someone could turn their PS2 into a home health monitor. Or a home security system. There are people who want to make this thing do magical stuff," said Richard Doherty, director of Envisioneering, a Seaford, N.Y., technology assessment and market research firm. "We'll probably hear talk of these first things spoken of -- if not shown publicly -- in the next few weeks."

Hacking consoles isn't all fun and games. Adding a full-fledged operating system to a console opens the door to computer viruses and probably voids your console's warranty.

But that hasn't stopped a lot of people from trying. Steve Schramm, a graphic artist in Alexandria, runs the free Linux operating system on his Sega Dreamcast -- a console that Sega gave up on in February in the face of competition from Sony and Nintendo.

"The Dreamcast is at a very interesting stage," Schramm said. "It's technically dead" -- Sega is slowly phasing out support for it, having shut down its online gaming network July 21.

"But the hardware is cheap, and peripherals are mostly cheap and will only get cheaper as things hit close-out status," he said.

As a result, many home-brewed Dreamcast projects have developed. In addition to modifying Linux (www.m17n.org/linux-sh/dreamcast/), hobbyists have also modified the NetBSD operating system and written VideoCD and MP3 players for Dreamcast consoles.

Schramm admitted that part of the allure of running Linux on his Dreamcast is simply "because you can. It's fun to twiddle with hardware in ways the original manufacturer never thought of." But the hack can be useful, too: Schramm has used Sega's broadband adapter to plug his Dreamcast into his cable modem. With a keyboard and telnet, file-transfer and Web-browsing software, he's got a cheap, basic Internet terminal.

Creating projects for game consoles isn't a new idea. Two years after the first PlayStation was released, home developers wrote software that let the unit play Video CDs (a format that has been popular in Japan and is only starting to gain acceptance in the United States).

"This bootleg software taught an old horse how to do new tricks, without Sony's sanctioning," Doherty said. "Sony eventually endorsed that capability."

A spokeswoman for Sony's computer entertainment division said she wasn't familiar with the Video CD technology.

Microsoft's Xbox will probably be the next target for tinkerers. The Xbox has a 733-megahertz Intel processor, an 8-gigabyte hard drive and an Ethernet port, so it is a PC at heart -- and, at $299, an inexpensive one.

"If you can get through the security that Microsoft has in place, I don't see any reason you couldn't use it as a PC," said Brian O'Rourke, an analyst at Cahners In-Stat. "I assume there will be a lot of hackers taking a shot at it. What their chances of success are, I don't know."

"It certainly has been a topic from day one," said Ed Fries, vice president of games publishing at Microsoft, on the subject of hacking the Xbox. "Steps have been taken to make it difficult," he said, declining to go into specifics.

But some doubt that Microsoft will be able to prevent hacking. Cliff Bleszinski, lead designer at Epic Games, predicted that the Xbox will be hacked. "There are going to be a lot of people who are going to hack the thing, wipe the hard drive and install Windows on it," he said.

This basement tinkering could lead to a new life for older game systems.

"What is going to happen to all those PlayStations -- 30 million of them -- as families replace them with PS2s or Xboxes or [Nintendo] GameCubes?" said Matthew Cunningham, director of communications at Representing Entertainers and Developers, an El Segundo, Calif., agent for game programmers. "Low-priced software to turn those consoles into desktop computers might be attractive to parents as an alternative to buying a second PC."

Articles by Kevin Savetz