|Hacking the XBox|
|author||Andrew "Bunnie" Huang|
|publisher||No Starch Press|
|summary||How and why to crack the seal on your Xbox.|
There are many reasons why you might want to take apart your XBox, but one of the best ones I can imagine is making it easier for people who can't see, hear or move too well to play the same video games as the rest of us. Searching Microsoft's web site for documents containing both "handicapped" and "xbox" reveals only a suggestion for how to change the degree of difficulty of your Zoo Tycoon Game.
Someone who might want to retrofit a new pointing device or some other enabling gadget onto the XBox might start with the chapter describing how to fix a real USB cable onto the XBox. The chapter, like most in the book, is heavily illustrated with step-by-step pictures and instructions for clipping the cables in the right place and soldering them back together. Some of this might seem a bit rudimentary, but the detail can't hurt. In many cases, the real challenge is finding a way to take apart the case or the pack of wires in the right way. Smashing it isn't always an option. This is a book about mathematics, electronics, and taking apart plastic boxes.
Alas, just doing a bit of soldering isn't going to be enough unless you can make the right drivers. To help those who might want to reprogram their XBox, Huang devotes much of the book to stripping away the layers of the XBox security system, a story that is part mystery and part journey through the security layers in the system. The book is arranged in a very roughly chronological order. While it is mainly a book that teaches you how to reverse engineer the XBox, it is also a story of how he overcame the obstacles presented by the encryption. He talks as much about the unsuccessful paths as the ones that paid off. (This is, I think, an ideal model for the scientific community. It's much more educational than the terse papers that present the results as fait accompli.)
This part of the book quickly gets quite complicated, because Microsoft obviously tried hard to produce a secure machine that could provide a fair platform for people to play games. Getting the XBox to run any old software is not an easy task, but Huang describes several major techniques for drilling through the various layers of security. Again, he offers detailed pictures and instructions for construction special tools that snarf signals from a bus. Then he explains how he managed to grab the right keys for decrypting some of the most important data. Although it's a technical book, it unfolds like a spy novel.
The book is also very politically thoughtful. While the clueless will equate the word "hacking" in the title with piracy, money laundering, terrorism, and not phoning home on mother's day, Huang frames every step with a discussion of whether it is motivated by good or evil. He's not interested in building a tool to pirate XBox games and points out that many of the modifications aimed at running Linux on the Xbox do not help the pirates in any way. If anything, they make the games entirely unplayable.
Huang does want to defend the right to tinker, citing Ed Felten and others in a defense of something we're rapidly losing. I've heard horror stories from Army Majors about Windows PCs that refused to boot after failing to find a C drive. Do we really want to build machines that can't be retrofitted or fixed in the field? Many war movies are saved by the young private who (like Huang) is willing and able to tinker.
If you don't respond to pulls on the heartstrings, you might want to read one of the concluding chapters from the EFF's Lee Tien about the current legal climate. There are few exemptions for tinkering and many of them are limited. Reverse engineering is okay if you're a big corporation making a competing product, but that didn't help 2600 magazine when they were accused of trying to help people view DVDs on their Linux machine. I can only imagine what they would do to someone with very bad vision who wanted to enable a special zoom feature on their Xbox.
The book was originally going to be published by Wiley, but the company balked when it realized there were stiff legal penalties for helping handicapped people use computers. Even the Massachusetts Institute of Technology felt that it would be better for Huang to disassociate itself from Huang and his humanitarian efforts. The university only relented after pressure from a few good professors who helped the university understand the value in Huang's mission. Huang decided to publish the book himself with the help of his girlfriend, Nikki Justis. The two of them should be commended for turning out such a beautiful, professional book. If you're intrigued by the xbox, interested in helping the handicapped, or just trying to learn how to reverse engineer things before things get worse, check out this book. It's a wonderful contribution to the literature.
To close, I'm offering a pair of cool projects with the hope that Huang's book will inspire people to tinker:
- Sonic Information -- The sound in games like Quake is pretty good, but what if it was rendered with enough precision to let blind people grok the scene? The echoes from the tapping of a white cane already carry plenty of information to the blind. What if they could compete on an equal footing with the sighted? Who would win?
- Eye Movement Measuring tools -- Tools exist for sensing the position of our eyes. A quadriplegic game could just look in the right direction and shoot. Clearly some work would need to be done to encode all of the shift-left-left-down-right maneuvers from the games. This could help all of us. The thumb you save from repetitive motion injuries could be your own.
Note: Since this review was written, Hacking the Xbox has found a publisher in the form of No Starch Press. The original self-published version will probably be a sought-after collectable ;)
Peter Wayner is the author of Translucent Databases and ten other books. None rely on the DMCA. Hacking the Xbox is due in July at bn.com; you can also go directly to the book's page at No Starch Press. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.