Profiles in Geekdom: Ben Heck, Serial Modder

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[Photo: element14]
If you enjoy tinkering with gadgets, Ben Heck is one name you're probably familiar with. Ben--his full name is Benjamin Heckendorn--is a serial modder, best known for his various console hacks. In addition to creating assorted mods and DIY projects, Ben also runs a successful video podcast, element14's The Ben Heck Show, where readers can submit hack challeneges for him to solve.

Aside from hacking, though, Ben is also an independant filmmaker. To date he has released six free films, varying in budgets from $300 to $10,000 (and they're all pretty funny).

Ben chats to GeekTech about where the hacking began, his proudest projects and how to create a great podcast.

GeekTech: Where did the infatuation with console modding begin?

Ben Heck: I was always drawn to technology. As a kid I enjoyed soldering, erector sets, and deconstructing toys to find out how they worked. Modding hooked me in elementary school when I had the opportunity to program an Apple II followed by an Atari 800. I learned fundamentals that I still find useful today!

GT: What was the first modding project you ever did? How successful was it?

BH: Inspired by my then-job as a graphic artist, I built my first mod in the year 2000--an Atari 2600 gaming system to make it smaller and portable. I created a "Geocities" site about the build as a means to share the new conquest with friends, and was astonished by the level of interest I received--up to 75 emails a day.

Ben Heck shows off a project from episode 14 of his podcast--the Xbox 360 laptop system combined with a 1977 Atari. [Photo: element14]
GT: So far, which has been your best mod yet...?

BH: I tend to favor the old-school mods as they radiate with nostalgia and bring back childhood memories--the 8-bit Atari 800 Computer mod, Apple II, and the Commodore 64 to name a few.

In terms of popularity, anything regarding modding, building or tweaking an Xbox 360 really piques people’s interests.

GT: …And what has been your worst?

BH: Maybe not my "worst," but my most challenging mod was definitely for the Nintendo 64--it's one of the hardest game systems to modify. I wouldn’t repeat this effort, nor is it really necessary with the Nintendo DS on the market.

"I take advantage of every opportunity I have to pay homage to systems of the past...It’s my way to keep the past alive while still moving forward."

--Ben Heck

GT: You seem to be able to take something old and give it a new lease of life. Where does your inspiration come from?

BH: Sometimes I like to refer to what I do as “digital archeology.” I take advantage of every opportunity I have to pay homage to systems of the past by implementing new forms of technology to make them even more exciting. It’s my way to keep the past alive while still moving forward.

GT: Over the years, you've also created a few films. Why do you focus on comedy films? Are you going to be working on any more?

BH: Comedies make for much simpler directing and only require elementary acting skills. It’s much easier to act cheesy and succeed, than to act serious and fail!

Do I see any films in my future? As you may know, I have somewhat of a serious obsession with pinball, so there is a chance you will see a pinball film from me sometime in the future. But for now, I’m focusing on hosting element14’s “The Ben Heck Show” and am constantly thinking of ways to make it more creative and fun.

GT: For anyone looking to get into modding devices, how difficult is it to do?

BH: As I have learned through my experience as internet television host of element14’s “The Ben Heck Show,” if you work hard you can accomplish great things despite the level of difficulty.

Modding is like any new venture--it becomes more comfortable with practice and experience. It is much easier to identify and solve any hiccups in modding if you take it slowly, one step at a time!

GT: Do you have any advice or tips for anyone thinking about modding?

BH: Start with older, cheaper systems first as they are much easier and less expensive to modify.

There is a wealth of information and knowledge available via the World Wide Web. Electronics enthusiasts and new modders can always access my website for additional information and assistance. In addition, stop by element14, the online resourceful design engineering community to collaborate with like-minded individuals and exchange information and ideas to troubleshoot existing mods, as well as inspire new, innovative designs.

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