Maker Faire Interview: DIY-King Ben Heck Talks Bill Paxton, Xbox Modding
So give us a quick background on how exactly you got into modding and how it became a full time gig for you?
Well, when I was a kid I was into circuit boards and electronics, and those little Radio Shack kits that they had. But, as I got older I drifted away from that, and got into filmmaking. But then, when I was about 24, I thought, "You know what, I'm tired of that. I'm gonna solder again." My skills had really eroded at that point; my soldering had completely atrophied. But I got back into it, and I decided to make a portable Atari 2600 unit because I figured no one cared about the Atari anymore, even though I was incorrect to think that. But, at the time, I didn't realize that.
So about ten and a half years ago, I started building an Atari 2600 portable. And I cranked it out, and made a little Geocities website for it. And there was this enormous response. I couldn't believe it. And I continued to do more projects with more systems. I made a portable Super Nintendo kind of like a Game Boy, a PlayStation, all sorts of other things. And I've been doing it full time as a job, not necessarily making portable game systems, but modding stuff, for about six years.
Do you have a personal favorite project?
My [Bill Paxton] pinball machine. I'm so proud of it. The kind of work that went into that is about 20-times what it takes to do an Xbox 360 laptop. A customer probably wouldn't want to afford to pay me to do that. I liked it, because no one would ever pay me to do that. Yet.
How much would you charge for a project like that?
Probably like $60,000 or $70,000.
Do you have a favorite Bill Paxton Quote?
Pretty much anything he says in 'True Lies' is gold. He even has a gold tooth. I really can't quote any of that, because a lot of it is inappropriate. Everyone that plays the game is like, "Does he say 'game over, man' at the end?" It's like, gee, what do you think? I almost wanted him to not say it at the end of the game, just because so many people ask about it.
Bill Paxton is obviously a fine actor, and actually an interesting director as well, but I didn't really do it because of Bill Paxton. I just wanted to make a pinball machine. I thought, "What will the theme be?" And then I thought "Bill Paxton! That theme will make people think 'WTF?'" So that's kind of why I went with it.
Next, I'd like to do something with Victorian era, steampunk, Tesla vs. Edison. Then I could do sci-fi.
So you're planning on making another custom pinball game then?
I've already started on the kernel to run the lights. More lights, more sound, more graphics, more advanced and better flippers. They're like potato chips; you can't have just one.
So how did you hook up with Element 14, who sponsors your show?
I was approached in the spring, and they were like, "Hey we've got this [modder] community going, and it would be great to make a show for it. We can use your Ben Heck street cred." I thought that sounded great. You know, I did have some interest in a show before. It was something I thought I would try.
So we started filming in the summer. It's a bi-weekly show, and on each episode we take a viewer challenge where someone says, "Hey can you build this?" And then we start building it. And, in the middle of the show, we take a break, and work on the big project -- which currently is the Xbox 360 laptop. I'd like to do pinball for the next large project. In the second half of the show, we finish the viewer challenge. In the case of the first thing we built -- an accessibility controller for the Xbox -- we actually sent it to the person, because he had a disability.
Have you heard back from that particular viewer?
I kind of lost contact with him, and I hope he didn't have to go back to the hospital. I do those quite often, though. We have another person that got one, and he said he's been using it to play 'Halo: Reach.' We told him that if he could get some video we'd put it on the show. But when you don't hear back from customers, it's usually good because that means the object didn't break.
Tell us a bit about this impressive portable workstation you've got set up here. (We've got a video of Heck's folding work station below.)
Strangely, I built this right after seeing 'Iron Man 2.' I'll make the next one out of wood, make it lighter. I might actually start building these and selling them.
What's the most essential tool in your arsenal?
Believe it or not: tweezers. I have had the same pair of La Cross tweezers for, like, ten years. Probably the number one thing I use. You can use them to pick up fine wires and parts or pull apart wires. If I ever lost my old tweezers or broke them, I'd probably cry. I also have a screwdriver that's 25-years old. I still use it every day.