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Archive for Sunday, June 8, 2008

An Xbox 360 laptop? Game modder can make it and more

June 8, 2008

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Benjamin Heckendorn takes the average videogame system or computer, tears it apart and transforms it into a work of art.

Anything from a Commodore 64 to Microsoft's Xbox 360 is fair game. He can turn an ancient Atari 2600 into a handheld or morph Sony's state-of-the-art PlayStation 3 into a laptop.

"It is mostly about rearranging things," Heckendorn said. "I used to play Tetris a lot when I was younger. ... I think that helped me a lot for like arranging things and making them fit - at least I like to tell myself that to justify the time spent."

His craft is called modding - derived from the word modify - and Heckendorn is a king among modders.

Heckendorn's creations are so coveted they can fetch thousands of dollars, and he picks his projects from the hundreds of requests pouring in over e-mail.

Suggestions range from the absurd - an Xbox combined with a Nintendo GameCube built into a refrigerator, for example - to the sublime, such as a one-handed Xbox controller that was requested by a serviceman injured in Iraq.

That one-handed controller gained so much attention that eDimensional Inc., a peripherals company in Jupiter, Fla., teamed up with Heckendorn to manufacture the device. No price or ship date has been set yet, but the company should be taking orders in a few weeks, according to Michael Epstein, CEO of the firm.

"We thought it was an interesting opportunity ... to cater to a market not being addressed at all," said Epstein, noting that the players requesting it include those with cerebral palsy, motorcycle accident victims and others with limited manual mobility. "We don't know how big the market is, but we wanted to go forward and help out a lot of enthusiastic gamers who have no option."

Heckendorn's projects are chronicled on technology enthusiast Web sites such as Engadget.com, where the bloggers and other fans drool over his devices.

"That's right folks - it's the Xbox 360 Elite laptop," the site cooed, gushing over a project he revealed in February. "We're not even going to try and pretend to understand how an individual could go about creating this kind of extreme mod to the Microsoft console."

Heckendorn, who is often called Ben Heck by his fans, started seriously experimenting with techy toys eight years ago, when he made a portable version of an Atari 2600.

"I thought it would be fun to do the old Atari from the 1970s," said Heckendorn, 32. "It's almost as old as I am.

"I didn't know much about electronics then. I don't know that much more now. Back then I was a complete newb, as they say. I kind of looked at it and reverse engineered it and figured out how to make it portable."

For the last four years he's earned a comfortable living tinkering for money from his basement workshop, a high-tech larder stocked with boxes of circuit boards, the husks of old game systems and game controllers tucked in the rafters.

A PS3 laptop, which took about 14 months of "on-again-off-again work," was a special request from his pals at Engadget.com, which auctioned it on eBay recently to benefit the National Cancer Coalition. The winning bid: $9,051.

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