Culture hacker talks Kinect bounty hunt (Q&A)

45 Minutes on IM: Perhaps best known for Roomba Frogger, Phil Torrone also discusses life as an open-source hardware maven and whether his next stunt will be TSA related.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
10 min read

When Microsoft's hot new Kinect motion-sensitive controller was released earlier this month, Phil Torrone and Limor Fried saw an opportunity to subvert what was being presented as a closed system.

Torrone and Fried, the principals behind the open-source hardware firm Adafruit Industries, love almost any kind of culture hacking, and in the Kinect, they recognized a system that presented users far more utility than Microsoft was offering.

Not wasting the chance to raise a bit of a stir, Adafruit said it would pony up $1,000 to the first person who could come up with an open-source driver for the Kinect. And when Microsoft responded to the bounty by telling CNET it did not "condone the modification of its products" and that it would "work closely with law enforcement and product safety groups to keep Kinect tamper-resistant," Adafruit was not deterred. Instead, it upped the bounty, first to $2,000, and then again, to $3,000.

Make magazine

Within a week, a hacker named Hector claimed the prize, still without Microsoft's blessing. But just nine days later, the company seemed to reverse course. Appearing on NPR's Science Friday, two Microsoft representatives explained that, first, the Kinect had been left open "by design," and that they were "inspired" by the Kinect community finding new uses for the device.

In a statement sent to CNET, a Microsoft spokesperson said, "The enthusiasm in the scientific community, specifically researcher and academic communities, around the potential applications of Kinect for Xbox 360 is exciting to see.

"There recently have been several articles implying that Kinect has somehow been hacked. That is untrue--Kinect has not been hacked in any way. To put it simply, the software and hardware that are part of Kinect have not been modified. What has happened is someone has created drivers that allow other devices to display the raw data that is output from Kinect. We are perfectly comfortable with hobbyists taking advantage of that raw data to explore the exciting possibilities of Kinect for themselves. We do note, however, that any of these uses of the Kinect are not licensed or authorized by Microsoft, and any modification of the Kinect would void the warranty."

CNET is no stranger to the exploits of Fried and Torrone. The two carried off perhaps their most famous hack in 2006 when they converted a simple Roomba vacuum cleaner into a Bluetooth-powered Frogger and proceeded to play Roomba Frogger on the streets of Austin, Texas during the South by Southwest Interactive festival. They were also behind the stunt a Gizmodo blogger pulled at CES in 2008, using TV-B-Gones that Torrone provided them to turn off all the TVs during a presentation by Panasonic.

Now, with Microsoft warming up to the hacking of the Kinect, Torrone agreed to sit down with CNET for a 45 Minutes on IM interview. No Roombas were harmed.

Q: Thanks a lot for being able to do it, even though you guys are so busy. Let's start with the Kinect hacking/bounty situation. Did you ever imagine that you would help Microsoft to change its mind about its position?
Torrone: I did. I really think "we are what we celebrate" and I knew once Microsoft saw the amazing projects (puppets, robots, art, and science) that people are doing, it would be impossible not be thrilled. The people at Microsoft are designers, engineers and artists too. They love this (they've even told us). I think this was an example of PR not talking to the developers before they understood all the good coming out of this. In the past, other "hacks" like the Wiimote really helped Nintentdo. People saw what was possible. So, overall, I'm thrilled, and I think Microsoft is too, at least now.

How did you come up with the idea for the bounty in the first place?
Torrone: For years there have been the "X-Prize" type contests, going to space, and one for making a mouse live longer than any other mouse. I think these can motivate people: There's a goal, a story is told, and it's generally assumed there is some good for all that will come out of these. So that's what we did. We knew someone, one day, would likely hack the Kinect, but it's always unclear what and if it would be released in terms of drivers. So we thought we'd experiment with a bounty to create open-source drivers. This way anyone could carry on the work after the goal was reached and a community could work and share information together. Now that it's over I think the results are almost literally speaking for themselves.

I'm curious, did you guys ever talk to a lawyer, or discuss at all whether offering the bounty was legal?
Torrone: We did not, we completely went out without a net on this. We thought we understood the law well enough so we would be OK. It was a risk for sure. Reverse engineering is perfectly legal and encouraged (well, that depends who you are, I suppose) and we thought it would be very unlikely that Microsoft would go after us. We were not selling anything, and we only offered a bounty for open-source drivers. In general, I think Microsoft steers clear of going after open projects. Maybe that was just a good guess on our part, but it turned out to be accurate. That said, it was a little scary when their PR folks started talking about "law enforcement." Our response was the raise the bounty (first from $1,000 to $2,000, and later to $3,000).

Have you had any interactions with Microsoft about this at all?
Torrone: Zero directly. We were hoping they'd contact us, at least to say hello and perhaps see if there's something we could do together as all these great examples are being published. On NPR, they said they were going to work with educators in some way, so we'd love to chat with them and see if there's something we could do together.

Well, from the first time I ever met you, at SXSW in 2006 (and even before, when we'd only communicated electronically) you've been doing terrific culture hacks. Where did it start for you?
Torrone: Culture hacking is a relatively new term, and it's certainly one I like to celebrate. I suppose for me it started when I was a kid and electronics were just starting to become social. By that, I mean you could do something with electronics and show or share it with others. Specifically, phone hacking. I think my favorite project was swapping out the crystal inside a Radio Shack phone dialer that allowed it to make "free calls" by simulating the sound of a coin being dropped in. Back in the day a little beep would happen and it would tell the phone 25 cents was dropped in. It was magical and since you've learned something, you're going to talk and share with others.

About two years ago I revisited this.

"It was a little scary when (Microsoft's) PR folks started talking about 'law enforcement.' Our response was the raise the bounty."

How so?
Torrone: With a video Limor "Ladyada" Fried (the founder of Adafruit Industries) and I made called Citizen Engineers. We showed how to modify a retired payphone so it can be used as a home telephone and for VoIP (Skype). Then we showed how to modify the hacked payphone so it accepts quarters, and lastly, to use a Redbox to make free phone calls from the modified coin-accepting payphone. Decades ago, this was the worst thing you could do, completely illegal, but very sought after. It's even how Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak got started (selling blue boxes). But now it's just retro. And fun to show how things worked.

So I think that theme ends up in lots of things you'll see now, "Make" magazine, Hack a Day, Adafruit, etc. All of them have this technology and sharing theme. The tech gets better and the tools to share are just getting better too.

You worked in the corporate world, as I recall. Remind me what you did?
Torrone: I was the director of product development for Fallon Worldwide. They're best known for their award-winning advertising. Specifically I was in the interactive group, and the BMW Films came from my group.

I think one of the most interesting things was how ahead of its time BMW Films was.

How so?
Torrone: This was before Bit Torrent, and we moved giant movies around. The content was amazing and it just happened to be advertising. I think really good information is advertising. With how-to videos, for example, you can teach and you can likely sell something too. Maybe you show how awesome a car is by blowing it up in a high-speed chase, or maybe you show how great that power tool is by building something amazing. I think the type of content that was coming out of Fallon, like BMW Films, really changed what people thought advertising could be.

I'm imagining that it was hard for you to be in that world. I suspect hacking wasn't smiled upon.
Torrone: Sometimes clients were delighted with the things we would present that I would consider "hacks." For example, I made a dog pedometer for a dog food company that would glow based on how far you walked your dog. They loved it, but it was so weird it was hard to get marketing budgets or approval to continue. I also made a pair of shoes that would spell words as you ran, much like this device.

But while my career in advertising was winding down, I was secretly working with "Popular Science," writing how-to's in a new section called "HOW 2.0." So during the day, I was traveling and meeting with clients about brands and Internet stuff. And then at night I was writing about how to hack your digital camera to take photos automatically while it's on a kite. As that took off, that's when I bailed from advertising. And around that time Engadget was just getting started. Peter Rojas left Gizmodo to start the new site, and he really wanted to beat his old site's traffic. So I worked with him, and my idea was to do how-to's, things like how to get music off your iPod, how to hack this and that. I think the biggest one was showing how to open a Kryptonite bike lock with a Bic Pen. Then we did Hack-a-Day, and after that took off, I met with Dale Dougherty from "Make." It didn't exist yet, but when he described it I immediately dropped everything and started to work on launching it with Dale, Mark Frauenfelder, and the team.

Back in 2005, we talked about how you were impressed with the way Altoids was embracing people's do-it-yourself projects with their tins. What other companies have been progressive on that front?
Torrone: I think iRobot, the makers of Roomba, is fantastic. Here's why: They saw what people were doing with their robots *besides* vacuuming and they made a new product. People like me wanted to use the robot parts to make real robots. All the complicated parts are solved, like power, motors, etc. So people were making their own robotics with Roombas.

You covered Roomba Frogger. That was a Bluetooth-controlled robot, dressed as Frogger. Later iRobot made the iRobot Create. It's a robotics platform just for robotics, and best of all, it was used this week with the Kinect hack(s). People are using the hacked Kinect with an iRobot Create to make autonomous robots. It's full circle! iRobot had me out to their offices before they launched the Create a few years ago to get feedback and here we are today.

I wanted to ask you about the TSA situation, with so many people being up in arms about their scanners and/or the intrusive pat-downs. It seems right up your alley. Are you tempted to get involved somehow?
Torrone: It's tempting, I really want to know how the machines work. Since the TSA isn't allowed to wear radiation detectors (I think they should), I was thinking of helping frequent flyers get their own radiation badges, helping them collect the data, and perhaps all of us could publish what we find. However, while I think I can win against Microsoft when it comes to what's ok to do with their products, I'm not sure I can win against the Department of Homeland Security or the government. But, who knows. I have flight in a few weeks. Maybe some other ideas will come to mind.

Here are the last questions, and I end every 45 Minutes on IM interview with this one. I love doing IM interviews for several reasons. One, because I get a perfect transcript. Two, because it gives the person I'm interviewing time to be more thoughtful and articulate than in a phone or in person interview. And finally, because it allows multitasking. So, tell me: What else were you doing while we were doing this interview?
Torrone: Hah, confession time. I was approving comments on both "Make" and Adafruit that were held for moderation. Limor was IMing me that we need to change the laser filter, and order items for the laser. And I glanced at two e-mails from an artist I am working with who is making the first-ever electronics coloring book.

Well, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Torrone: That was fun.

Update (Wednesday, 10:49 a.m. PST): This story now has comment from Microsoft.