Ben Heck specializes in what might well be called «bonsai computing.» His hobby is miniaturizing video game consoles.
In the United States Heck is a celebrity in the environment of creators, thanks to his funny videos on YouTube.
On your show The Ben Heck Show, and at the request of users – who number in the millions – Heck hacks any product with digital components, from smartphones to electronic doors and wheelchairs, to later adapt and transform them into surprising objects.
He also builds gadgets out of thin air.
But he is best known for his abilities as a «console modifier»: he is an expert in deconstructing and transforming classic game consoles, to make them work differently from their original version.
Heck has cultivated this passion for 15 years, inspired by his fascination with video games since his childhood in Wisconsin.
This week Heck took part in a camping festival in London called the Electromagnetic Field.
How do you do it?
In essence, his technique consists of opening the innards of video game consoles and mutilating their components.
Miniaturization is possible because Heck uses modern data loggers and also modern day components that consume less power.
Plus, you can replace bulkier items like the screen, keyboard, and case with your own parts.
To impress his fellow Londoners Heck came to the festival with a conversion of a classic piece from the 80s, the ZX Spectrum, by English inventor Sir Clive Sinclair.
But it has also transformed the Commodore 64 and XBox 360 into laptops.
And it has made handheld versions of consoles from Atari, Sega, and Sony.
For the feat with the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Heck found the game files and computer schematics of the old gems of the 80s on a retro website.
Then he searched Ebay for the original chips.
He rebuilt everything manually and, to test it, he left the wiring exposed with a «window» on the back of the console.
From his tent in Bletchley, a town north of London, Heck showed the BBC how his creation works: he connected an iPad on which he downloaded the game files to the console that, like 30 years ago, was it took a few minutes to download the game.
«Ironically, the tablet is like 2,000 times faster than the Spectrum,» he said.
«I could have just downloaded a game simulator to my tablet,» he joked.
According to Dougal Shaw, a technology journalist at the BBC, there is a huge market nostalgic for games from the 1980s.
There are, in fact, applications that allow you to download titles from yesteryear to your smartphone.
According to Shaw, this has allowed the old video game-making studios that have survived so far to continue to receive income from their old catalogs.
But Heck didn’t modify the Sinclair ZX Spectrum to meet any market demand – he just did it out of curiosity to see if he could pull it off.
A philanthropic side
Interestingly, because of its fame as a technology modifier, Heck received many requests from disabled people and their families to create a one-handed control pad.
Many of the messages were heartfelt pleas for help for veterans, stroke patients, or victims of traffic accidents.
They loved playing video games and wanted to keep doing it.
«It feels good (to fulfill these wishes),» he told the BBC.
«They are a small part of the population, so solutions are not usually made for them.»
«And that’s when I arrive.»
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