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> "Modder" turns hobby into career
post Apr 2 2008, 03:52 PM
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"Modder" turns hobby into career
By Scott Hillis

SAN FRANCISCO, March 27 (Reuters) - If you ever thought it would be cool to have an Xbox laptop, or wished those old Atari games in your attic could be reborn on a retro handheld device, you might want to talk to Benjamin Heckendorn.

Better known as Ben Heck, the 32-year-old Wisconsin native has attained legendary status among "modders," hobbyists who tinker with video-game hardware to make it do things the original designers never intended.

Technology Web sites enthusiastically track Heckendorn's latest projects, which are marked by workmanship that makes the finished products look they rolled off a factory line instead of a basement workbench.

"That's the American way, right? Start in your basement, garage, or whatever. You're supposed to get out of it someday, but I still have to listen to my clothes drier sometimes," Heckendorn said in an interview.

Heckendorn got his start eight years ago when he decided to fool around with an old Atari 2600 -- the classic console that popularized home gaming when it launched in 1977 -- and ended up reincarnating it as a handheld device.

"I was shocked, I didn't think anyone would care about it but they did," Heckendorn said.

In fact, they cared so much they began offering Heckendorn hefty amounts of cash to transform their cherished game devices into one-of-a-kind collectibles.

"Ben Heck is basically the best. His mods are as professional as the stuff you can get at Best Buy. That's what makes him stand out from the other basement tinkerers," said Adam Frucci, a contributing editor to the popular tech blog Gizmodo, which has chronicled many of Heckendorn's creations.

"Our readers are always excited to see whatever his newest project is," Frucci said. "He's clearly head and shoulders above anybody else."

Heckendorn keeps busy with a couple dozen projects each year, many updated on his Web site, Fees range from a few hundred dollars to convert a clunky old console into a handheld, to more than $4,000 to make a laptop computer out of an Xbox 360.

There are plenty of bizarre requests, too.

"Often someone will ask me to combine five different video game systems in one box, which is of course ridiculous. One guy wanted me to build an Xbox 360 controller attached to his rowing machine at home so he could row and play 'Uno' with his friends online. It sounded so weird I did it."

Heckendorn's growing reputation is inching him closer to his dream of working on major retail products.

A couple years ago a soldier injured in Iraq asked him to make a game controller that could be operated with one hand. Heckendorn did it and is now working with a peripheral maker to sell a packaged product.

"There was such a large response to it. Lots of motorcycle accidents, you would not believe it," Heckendorn said. He hopes to donate some to wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

His efforts have also gotten him noticed in the halls of major console makers such as Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo.

"There are no offers to throw bundles of money at me but I do hear from them now and then," he said.

An electronics hobbyist as a child and trained as a graphic designer, Heckendorn learned basic machining skills working for a sign-making business.

"I destroyed a lot of video-game consoles and burned my fingers a lot. Now I know which end of the soldering iron to hold," Heckendorn said.

Where others might have a beloved old car they are lovingly restoring, Heckendorn's personal project is designing a pinball game based, oddly, on Bill Paxton, who has starred in movies such as "Titanic" and "A Simple Plan."

One thing Heckendorn hasn't done much of, ironically, is play video games.

"I didn't used to play, but last year I went out of my way to play more video games," Heckendorn said. "I would probably maybe buy one game a year. Last year I said you know what, this is ridiculous."

Check out Ben's website here:

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