It's amazing what you can do with a video games console, a little electrical engineering knowledge, and a pinch of ingenuity.
Just ask Benjamin Heckendorn, beloved and known by gamers across the web as Ben Heck. The man behind contraptions including the Xbox 360 laptop, a handheld and battery-powered Nintendo 64 with a built-in screen and a Power Glove style controller that makes the Kinect sensor even more accurate, he's gone from soldering LCD screens on to old Atari consoles as a hobby to host of one of the world's most popular web video series today.
As the star of the Ben Heck Show (More than 100,000 YouTube followers and counting), which has reached 87 episodes since the 2010 pilot, it’s up to him to prove that sometimes consoles really aren't as cutting edge as their manufacturers claim. With a little bit of out of the box thinking, whether that’s by bolting on a display, combining two machines into one or just welding a toaster into the controller just because he can, he does just that, week in week out.
Heckendorn, who lives and works in Wisconsin, didn't originally set out to make a career out of Frankenstein consoles however. The 37-year old originally trained as an artist and graphic designer, though his fascination with electronics stretched back to his childhood, when he would pull apart radios to figure out just how they worked.
"I started making portable game consoles as a hobby around 13 years ago now," he tells Red Bull UK. "I remember playing the Atari, and I thought it would be cool to make a portable version of it. That was what got me started, my love of video games that got me into electronics."
As fate would have it, his old job making signs would even play its part, giving him plenty of practise with the CNC machinery that would later help him mock up everything from console laptop casing to a, er, robot suitcase.
“Sometimes I would design mechanical pieces, aluminium containers, things that would fit together, basically things that could be CNC built. So I learned about CNC machinery at that time, and that gave me a huge advantage when I got into designing things, making cool enclosures and cases for custom projects,” he says. “So no matter what you learn in your job or life, eventually it might come in handy - that's what I've learned.”
For years, Heckendorn worked hand to mouth, knocking up insane, pimped out consoles on request if the price was right, when in 2010 he was approached to create his own web show, sponsored by electronics website element14. A gaming star was born.
“We shot six episode pilots back in the summer of 2010, and that turned into a whole season and we're still doing it! We're on season three at the moment, with about 12 episodes left to go.”
On the show, Heckendorn and his co-presenters field questions and suggestions from viewers about what to make. While they’ve tackled creations including a booster seat simulator that uses a smartphone to recreate the rocking motion of a car journey to help a baby to sleep, and a game controller that toasts food and pushes it out for you to eat while you play (really), it’s sometimes the simplest tricks that are the hardest to pull off.
“On the show, we did a slot-loading Nintendo where you set the cartridge in, and it sucks it in like a CD player, or like a PS3. It sucks the cartridge in and mechanically squishes the contacts on the cartridge so they don't wear out. That was probably the most complicated thing we've ever built on the show, it was certainly the hardest, working late, 12 hours days, and then we'd still barely run on time.”
His latest gaming creation takes something decidedly less powerful than an Xbox 360, but turns it into something far more versatile. Using little more than a 3D printer and a £25 Raspberry Pi computer [http://www.redbull.com/uk/en/stories/1331582068494/raspberry-pi-gaming-computer-programing-pc-chip-board], he’s crafted the ultimate gaming handheld, a GameGear-style computer with gaming controls and an LCD screen which plays all of the classic arcade games from yesteryear, like Metal Slug and Contra.
“The Pi was fun, it's a two sided 3D printed case, the 3D printer was great for it as it used different depths for different things,” he says. “The 3D printer helped me make a professionally looking case, and it only took around two hours to print each side.”
Recently, Heck’s been working on gaming projects even more old-school than an Atari or a ZX Spectrum: classic pinball machines.
‘I like building pinball machines. That's what I kinda do as a hobby now. When I was a graphic artist, my hobby was hacking, my job became hacking, and now a lot of my job is doing my show - so now my hobby has reverted back to being electronics.”
He spent five years working on his own table, Bill Paxton Pinball (Again, really), based on the terrible films starring the actor, and is now hard at work at his second creation, America's Most Haunted.
“That's where my art background comes in handy, so I can make the art and make it look cool, as presentation is fifty percent of it. It's a difficult thing, it takes a lot of time to build these things, but its fun, and eventually it'll be done.”
Heck’s also looking ahead to the next generation of consoles and pondering what he might be able to do with them. Right now, it’s looking like Sony’s new PlayStation 4 could prove the mode “moddable”.
“The PS4 is smaller, significantly. It's 60 percent of the thickness, compared. It looks weird in pictures, but it looks pretty neat looking in person.”
He’s less impressed with the Xbox One, though more for Microsoft’s poor handling of its controversial plan to prevent discs from being played on more than one machine, thereby preventing used games - a policy which it’s already ditched after a huge public outcry.
“I think it was probably a game of chicken with two cars driving at each other, who's going to blink first? Microsoft probably assumed Sony was going to have a similar DRM [digital rights management], and I thought they were going to as well. And Sony didn't blink,” he says. “The Xbox One has a lot of issues, but they should have predicted that. You don't have to be frickin' Nostradamus to predict the public would react like that.”
Heck’s hostility to Microsoft’s new console comes as no surprise to fans of the show. Aside from cobbling Xbox-powered laptops together, he’s spent years trying to make the Xbox 360 more open to gamers with his Access Controller, a large joystick pad that makes Xbox games playable with just one hand.
It’s designed with disabled gamers in mind, and even lets you swap out the five modules so you can place them wherever you want, depending on the player or the game.
Heckendorn says he wanted to make “something that could help people”, and short of Microsoft releasing a “brain box” that would let people make their own controllers for the Xbox 360 without running into licensing issues, this was the next best thing.
“I've talked to Microsoft about it, and basically, it's not a large enough market, so it's pretty hard to justify the resources of a giant company which is understandable, but there's still a decent market.”
So, Heckendorn’s still doing what he does best: crafting each one on his own. “Right now, I'm building them by hand, one by one, by request.” He may have TV shows to star in, but the Ben Heck factory line just keeps on rolling, no matter what.