When Furby hit store shelves in November 1998, it was an instant hit. Kids loved it. Parents loved it. People paid three times the Furby's retail value just to get one for the holidays, and within three years, Furby had sold 40 million units. Now, nearly two decades later, it's the seedy world of Furby hackers and circuit-benders that are keeping the legendary toy alive. Furby hacking is a well-documented hobby dating back to the toy's original release in the late 1990s. Entire web 1.0 websites depict how to hack a Furby, and feature detailed illustrations of the gruesome dissections, floating Furby heads that read you email and disturbing videos of skinless Furbies speaking in tongues. You can even watch a Japanese maid peel off Furby's furry carapace — all because Furbies are cheap, easy to break open and fun mess around with.
And the number of Furby hacks only appears to be growing. Late last year, students at Wroclaw University of Technology announced the Open Furby project, which walks people through the process of installing a custom controller into the toy so that it can be operated from any PC. This new Furby hack makes it easy for people to operate the toy however they'd like.
Brooklyn-based Furby hacker Lee von Kraus says the array of sensors and the low price have kept Furby popular within the circuit-bending community. He's even published the grisly details of his own DIY Furby hacks on Instructables. von Kraus' hacks are simple, like many Furby hacks, using the toy's built-in IR sensor to detect heat and set off an external alarm. He similarly toyed with the other embedded sensors just to prove he could control them entirely.
It's not unusual for Furby hackers to attack the sensor array and micro-controller. Some hacks even require adding new integrated circuits, which usually look like a mess of wires plugged into the Furby's "brain". The custom circuits let hackers manipulate Furby's sensors and add extra capabilities like voice recognition. One person use a similar method to create bizarre machines with a choir of Furby zombies. The newer 2012 edition Furbys, which come with companion iOS and Android apps, have also been hacked without installing any new hardware at all, allowing Furby to perform specific actions if you receive an email or get an @ mention on Twitter.
It. Is. Alive. Via YouTube.
Once you realise how many Furby hacking possibilities exist, it's easy to get pulled into the wormhole of endless YouTube instructional videos and Github guides walking you through the process, but von Kraus thinks there's a simple reason that hackers are so drawn to the toy.
"There aren't many other platforms like it that allow you to do something cool by just hacking it," he said. "Like if you hack a remote control car, you can make it go faster, and that's pretty much it." In other words, it's easy to make the Furby do cool shit.
"It's all controlled by just one motor," von Kraus said. "When Furby came out everyone thought it was really advanced, but in reality, they were just projecting their own emotions into it, like pets."
A zombie Furby whose only reason for existence is to read your email outloud. Via YouTube.
And that's the second part of Furby's success. A Furby, at its core, is just a giant face. It's a simple electronic playground that inexperienced hackers can open up and experiment with — and they get immediate results thanks to the toy's big stupid eyes and moving beak.
Hasbro, the current owner of the Furby franchise, still sees the appeal. In 2012, it released a new Furby with a set of two LCD screens for eyeballs, which when not hauntingly terrifying, can also open up an entirely new hacking frontier.
And that's the frontier the Open Furby project wants to explore. This short demo is a glimpse of what they have in mind, using Furby's new LCD screen eyes to display important information. Open Furby removes the technical barrier associated with toy hacking and will give everyone the tools needed to create any kind of Furby they wanted.
With a custom-created PCB board and software, the Furby transforms into a DIY robotic interface on the cheap. Depending on its popularity, the team says they will consider a Kickstarter campaign to help more people get in on the Furby-hacking fun.
A group of Furbies doing...something. Via YouTube.
Open Furby wouldn't be the first time a hacking kit was made for a toy from decades ago (remember BearDuino?). But unlike other creepy automata, no toy has inspired 18 years of consistent online hacking how-tos and video walkthroughs. Those early hacking explorations have now blossomed into the DIY hacking platform that could one day introduce Furby to a new generation of would-be tinkerers.
Top Image: Flickr