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Routine Upgrades Are the Bane of 'Homebrew' Enthusiasts

By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, July 6, 2006; D04

Independent programmers are working on ways to listen to Internet radio and wirelessly check e-mail through the handheld Nintendo DS game device. Elsewhere, some jokers figured out how to get a playable version of Doom onto the iPod.

When one popular Tetris-like game, called Lumines, was not released for the Nintendo GameBoy, one programmer made his own knockoff version, which he called "LumineSweeper."

These are the things that happen inside the "homebrew" scene, the online place where hacker skills and video game culture overlap. For the enthusiasts in this community, figuring out how to make a Nintendo game work on a Sony device is as much fun as playing the games.

For the past year or so, a favorite device among homebrew tinkerers has been the slick PlayStation Portable, Sony's answer to the GameBoy. The PSP plays audio and video files and comes with built-in wireless technology. For the homebrew crowd, the device's capabilities -- and its built-in software safeguards -- are like candy.

For months, though, the PSP homebrew scene had been nearly dead, thanks to software updates from Sony designed, in part, to shut the tinkerers down. As of this past weekend, however, the game is on again.

PSP owners have to install Sony's PSP updates if they want to experience the latest off-the-shelf titles, but the updates generally offer users only a few new features or tools. Quietly, though, they close the security holes that programmers exploit to do their tricks.

So lively is the homebrew scene that some PSP fans -- it's impossible to say how many -- say they don't buy or play new games because they don't want to upgrade their gadgets and lose their homebrew software. There's even a circulating joke slogan: "Friends don't let friends upgrade their PSPs."

Unable to break through recent versions of the Sony software, PSP homebrewers have moved on to another trick: downgrading their PSPs to earlier versions.

Thanks to a new file recently posted on the Web, PSP owners with version 2.6 software are able to roll back their devices to the more hacker-friendly software version 1.5. And if any recent game title for the Sony device has generated as much excitement online as this underground developer's announcement, I missed it.

Programmers also have been working away at hacking Microsoft's Xbox 360, but it's unclear how successful they've been. From screen shots floating around the Internet, it looks as though some clever person may have figured out how to put a larger hard drive into the console than the one the machine comes with out of the box -- but the shots could also easily have been faked by somebody spending a few idle minutes with Photoshop.

Microsoft has made bold claims about how secure the Xbox 360 is -- just the sort of comments that egg hackers on. But so far, nobody appears to have cracked the 360's security open enough to allow for the installation of free software like Xbox Media Center.

That software, developed by hobbyists, made Microsoft's original game console a more functional home entertainment system than much of what is commercially available today. The program has such a stellar reputation among techies that I've known of some folks who don't care for video games much but bought an Xbox just to use it.

Console makers dislike this sort of tinkering because it opens the door to piracy. The same tricks that make an Xbox more functional to power users are the same tricks that override the controls put into place to keep users from playing illegally copied versions of games.

For inexperienced consumers, there's a huge risk with tinkering on these gadgets. At the very least, you'll void your warranty as soon as you crack open a game-console case. And game devices that connect to the Internet can give their makers stronger ways to register their disapproval: Microsoft throws anyone that it detects as playing with a "modified" Xbox off its online service.

The worst-case scenario for this type of hobbyist is a bit scarier: Install some amateur software code the wrong way, and it can turn that console or portable gadget into a useless piece of plastic and metal. In the gamer-hacker community, this is called "bricking" -- as in, that's what you just turned your $400 game console or $250 PSP into.

A Real-Life Workout

Video games are starting to hit the gym.

A Laurel-based company, Powergrid Fitness, announced this week that it has reached a deal with Gold's Gym in which some gyms in the chain will start carrying Powergrid's flagship Kilowatt device, which is both game controller and exercise machine.

With the Kilowatt controller, players (or exercise buffs) push, pull and lean on the machine -- a small platform with a game controller rigged to the top of movable post -- to move their on-screen characters. Instead of using just their thumbs to play a game, the idea goes, users move their whole bodies. The resulting workout, the company says, can burn about 350 calories an hour.

Powergrid's vice president of marketing, Jason Grimm, said racing games tend to be the most popular titles used with the device, such as Electronic Arts' best-selling Need for Speed Underground and a new motorcycle game called Moto GP. The first local Gold's Gym location to install the device will be in Glen Burnie, he said.

The company also sells the $500 product at its Web site, http://www.powergridfitness.com . A $200 version of the device aimed more at consumer use is in the works and is scheduled to hit retail stores later this year.

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