Manic modder: Inside Ben Heck's world of bonsai computing
- 12 September 2014
- From the section Technology
Ben Heck specialises in what you might call "bonsai computing".
In a land that takes pride in making everything bigger - he exercises his right to miniaturise.
Namely, video games consoles.
In America he is a celebrity of the "maker" scene, thanks to his humorous broadcasts on YouTube. The Ben Heck Show (which he helpfully advertises on his T-shirt) sees him hack devices from smartphones to quadcopters, electronic doors and wheelchairs - often after requests from viewers.
He adapts these digital objects in surprising ways, as well as building new objects from scratch - and the show has been viewed more than 16 million times.
But he is best known as a "console modder" - an expert in deconstructing classic games consoles, and morphing them into different forms.
It is a passion he has cultivated as a hobby for nearly 15 years and stemmed from a fascination with computer gaming, growing up in Wisconsin.
More used to the circuit of the American maker scene, he has made a trip to hackers' camping festival Electromagnetic Field in Bletchley, just north of London, to connect with fellow British computing enthusiasts.
To appease the Brits, he has brought not a converted XBox, or Atari - two of his signature hacks - but Sir Clive Sinclair's 1980s ZX Spectrum.
In essence, his technique is to open up the guts of video games consoles, and mutilate them.
The shrinking is possible because he uses modern data storage, some up to date components which are less power hungry, and he replaces bulky elements, such as the screen, keyboard and casing, with his own parts.
"I hand-wired a duplicate of the Spectrum," he explains. "We found the schematics online and reproduced it along with some lithium ion batteries."
"That's why we put a window on the back of it," explains Heck, "to show off the wiring and prove that it's not an emulation, it's actually original hardware."
He sourced many of the original Spectrum Z80 chips from Ebay, before wiring them on prototyping boards.
"It's the real deal," he says.
In this way he has turned Commodore 64s and XBox 360s into laptops, and made portable, handheld versions of Atari, Sega and Sony consoles.
Video console makers are notoriously protective of their devices and the secrets behind their manufacture. But despite his notoriety, Heck has so far not encountered any objections, or legal action.
It is mainly people who "mod" to play pirated games they go after, he points out.
In the case of the ZX Spectrum, his new handheld version looks a bit like a Blackberry - a parallel he is keen to play down. (Though he points out it at least avoids the issue of having rubber keys.)
A tablet instead of a music cassette player can be plugged in to the computer to load games, though still using an audio lead.
"Ironically the tablet is around 2,000 times faster than the Spectrum," muses Heck. "2GHz quadcore versus 3.5Mhz in the Z80."
There is the familiar, tense wait for the game to load.
He has sourced the files for the game from the same retro site where he found the circuit designs, World of Spectrum, a magnet for the computer's international fan base.
Classic game Manic Miner fails to load on first attempt - a sign of the system's authenticity, insists Heck.
When it does arrive the sounds are familiar - and the Menagerie level is no easier on a small screen.
"It is pretty ironic," says Heck, "I could just download a Spectrum emulator on to this iPad."
There is a huge nostalgia market for games of the 1980s, and emulator apps are available that allow you to download old titles and play them on mobile devices.
This has allowed games studios that have survived to make money from their old back catalogue.
But despite this appetite for retro games, Heck says he will not build another miniature ZX Spectrum. He hasn't made this to satisfy any market - just his own urge to see if it can be done.
But if the console modder's art seems a little self-indulgent and abstruse, Heck has one antidote to this.
Through his work he has received a steady stream of requests from disabled people, and relatives of disabled people, to see if he could make a games controller operated with one hand.
Many were heartfelt pleas to help war veterans, stroke sufferers and car accident victims, who loved to game, and wanted to continue to do so.
"It feels good" to fulfil these requests, says Heck. "Controllers like that are a small percentage of the population, so solutions aren't usually made for them.
"That's where I come in!"
Watch Ben Heck load and play Manic Miner on his mini-Spectrum.