Page last updated at 10:51 GMT, Tuesday, 26 February 2008

New Wii craze is opening up

People playing on the Wii
The Wii has captured the imagination of non-gamers
Bill Thompson looks at ways hackers are opening up the Wii for uses never intended by Nintendo

The Nintendo Wii is an astonishing computer, the console for people who don't play games, nestling next to the TV like a family pet and encouraging those who would normally sneer at a PlayStation to wave their arms around in order to play virtual tennis.

The Wii remote has a lot to do with its success, of course.

This motion detecting wireless handheld controller gives players a far more direct sense of engagement with the game than the buttons, pads and triggers of traditional consoles, and accounts for much of the Wii's success as a family gaming platform.

Like other games systems the Wii is as far from an open platform as you can imagine.

Games cost a lot of money to develop, and Nintendo has worked hard to make it difficult to get inside the Wii for fear that easy access would allow games to be copied and distributed.

As a result you can only play licensed games, run licensed programs and do the things that Nintendo thinks you ought to, even though you've paid good money for the hardware.

As you might expect, this has not deterred bands of gifted programmers and engineers around the world from working hard to find and exploit the holes in the Wii's setup that could allow access to its inner workings.

Remote uses

Wii remote and console
Wii remote that can do the vacuuming?

The Wii remote is just a clever Bluetooth device at heart, so it has proved to be an easy target.

It can already be used to control a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, and the delightfully named 'DarwiinRemote' team lets your Wiimote act as remote control for Macintosh computers - the name is a pun on Darwin, one of the main components of Mac OS X.

Other members of the homebrew community, whose name comes from those who prefer to make beer at home instead of settle for industrially-manufactured stuff, have had a lot of success with the Wii itself, just as other groups have managed to open up the Xbox and PlayStation.

According to the technology site Slashdot there is now an MP3 player, a way to convert and play GameCube game files and even a port of GNU/Linux that runs on the Wii.

The developers involved, true hackers who want to know how things work and exploit the capabilities of the hardware to the full, are not aiming to pirate Super Mario Galaxy or Jenga.

They are driven by a desire to overcome the limits put in place by the manufacturer so that they can, for example, run games from older Nintendo consoles on the new platform or even write their own.

Why have a GameCube and a Wii in the living room when the Wii can do it all?

And why have a powerful games system that won't let you write and run your own games?

Getting it all to work can be complicated, of course.

There are hardware modifications that involve soldering 'mod chips' onto the main circuit board, or a neat trick that uses a coding error in specific pressings of 'The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess'.

And there is always a danger that Nintendo, caring more about potential games copying than the desires of their customers, will block these holes and prosecute the providers of mod chips as Sony and Microsoft have done in the past.

But this is unlikely to deter them.

Cat and mouse

Bill Thompson
The pressure is on for the developers and manufacturers of hardware to open it up for others to use creatively
Bill Thompson
The desire to open up the case and remove what are seen as arbitrary and capricious limitations on the way our computers operate is not limited to games consoles, of course.

It is estimated that around one third of all the iPhones sold by Apple have been unlocked so that they can run on any phone network, and the pressure to allow application developers to program the device has forced Apple to release a software developers kit.

All around the pressure is on for the developers and manufacturers of hardware to open it up for others to use creatively, instead of simply providing a set of authorised functions and expecting customers to be happy with what they are offered.

Doing this carries risks, of course, and not just the unlicensed copying of games that worries the console makers. Security flaws could be uncovered, causing problems for online services or even the back-end servers that support online games communities.

But those risks exist anyway, as we can see in the success that the hackers have had in opening up every single platform out there. Surely it would be better to admit that there will always be a way in?

Much as I admire the skills, effort and sheer brilliance that has gone into finding ways to hack the Wii, the iPhone and the Xbox I can't help thinking that there are better ways for us all to spend our time than a game of cat and mouse between the talented hackers who work for Apple, Microsoft and Nintendo and the talented hackers who buy their products.

Just think what brilliant software we'd have for the Wii by now if Nintendo had said: "here's a games console. And here are the hardware schematics - go play!"


Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.




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