Hacking Barney the dinosaur for fun (no profit)


Many years ago, Microsoft produced a collection of interactive toys called ActiMates, and one of the features was that television programs could broadcast an encoded signal which would enable the toy to interact with the program. The idea would be that the Barney doll would do something that was coordinated with what was happening on Barney & Friends.

When this came out, a bunch of us wondered what it would take to hack into the device and get Barney to say and do, um, very un-Barneyish things. One of us managed to get a schematic for the device, but since none of us was an electrical engineer, that pretty much dead-ended the project.

Over ten years later, I learned that we weren't the only people to get that idea. I met someone who told me that he managed to get his hands on the internal devkit for the ActiMates series and control a Barney doll from his PC. Not satisfied with being limited to the built-in Barney phrases, he was able to "take additional creative steps with the devkit" to stream his own replacement audio to the device (although he was never able to get the sound quality of his streamed audio to sound as good as the built-in phrases). As a result, he could make Barney say whatever he wanted, and if he really felt like it, he could wake up all the Barney toys in his apartment complex at midnight and give orders to his robot army of purple dinosaurs.

The catch was that his robot army most likely would have consisted of just one robot.

Bonus reading: SWEETPEA: Software Tools for Programmable Embodied Agents [pdf], Michael Kaminsky, Paul Dourish, W. Keith Edwards, Anthony LaMarca, Michael Salisbury and Ian Smith, CHI'99.

Comments (21)
  1. Joshua Ganes says:

    I love the visual of an army of small, purple dinosaurs under the command of an evil dictator. I think this could be the beginning of a new Hollywood blockbuster. Are there any movie producers reading this? I think I have something.

  2. Derp says:

    In response to the above comment, I think the big fluffy pink toy being evil and leading other toys has been covered by a recent blockbuster.

  3. Can't remember. says:

    When I grew up there was a movie abouts "toys" with Robin Williams. His father dies and leaves him a factory that produces "toys". Nefarious board members turn the "toys" into military weapons. Just can't remember the name.

    [I think it was called "The Bus That Couldn't Slow Down." -Raymond]
  4. Marquess says:

    “The Bus That Couldn't Slow Down” sounds a lot like the title of the Chinese bootleg of “Speed.”

  5. A. Skrobov says:

    Now that's a small world: Michael Kaminsky sits just five floors above my office.

  6. Jeffrey Bosboom says:

    Also small world: I have class with Paul Dourish later this afternoon.

  7. PatrickV says:

    The movie referenced by Robin Williams was actually named "Toys".  http://www.imdb.com/…/tt0105629

  8. Gabe says:

    Ah yes, en.wikipedia.org/…/The_Bus_That_Couldn%27t_Slow_Down

    I think I saw that movie in Springfield, once.

  9. Adam V says:

    @Marquess: Google is your friend – http://www.quotedb.com/…/175

  10. Pete Baughman says:

    I got your joke Raymond.  Apparently there aren't as many Simpsons fans here as I expected

  11. Troll says:

    Ah…those really exciting days when we had en.wikipedia.org/…/Microsoft_Home and en.wikipedia.org/…/Microsoft_Plus! Back then Microsoft added software features without redoing the UI all over again in nearly every version.

  12. Mihai says:

    BTW robot army, some years ago I was in charge of a gift for a friend's boy (several people putting money together for something bigger).

    And the result was a kit of the first generation of Lego Mindstorms. Several people were unhappy because of "wasted money", but it proved the right thing. The boy had a blast, and played with it for several years.

    Now the connection with the article: one of his project was a tank that would navigate to the (opened) door of his sister, shot a (sponge) rocket, then retreat.

    He is now at Berkeley :-)

  13. Guy Fawkes says:

    The funny thing about the wikipedia link is that it redirects to "Speed" but neither the title not the Simpsons are even mentioned in the article. Talk about being an unhelpful redirection.

    I liked the joke, though.

  14. JZ says:

    In college we "enhanced" a Teddy Ruxpin animatronic doll.  It's a stuffed animal with a cassette player in its back, and special tapes with one of the stereo tracks encoding movement commands (primarily for Teddy's jaw).

    In Teddy's cassette deck we put a cassette adapter like you'd use to hook an MP3 player up in your car.  We then built a simple circuit board to feed appropriate signals to Teddy.  The next step would have been to write software for the PC to do this, but the people involved were more EE types, so it stayed at the hardware proof-of-concept stage.  We were not far away from having Teddy animatedly say anything we wished (by synthesizing a voice on one channel and the movement commands on the other).

    Unfortunately, modern Teddy Ruxpins use some sort of (analog, later digital) cartridges…the most hackable ones are about 20 years old now.

  15. Anon says:

    I hope JyZude reads this post ( everything2.com/…/Microsoft+Barney )

  16. Mike Dunn says:

    From the linked PDF:

    "In “PC Mode,” ActiMates Barney communicates with desk-top computer software via a radio transceiver **connected to the computer’s MIDI port**."

    Ah, the good ol' days before USB.

  17. JimKueneman says:

    Here is a nice MIT paper on hacking Barbie and Barney

    sandbox.xerox.com/…/sweetpea.pdf

    Jim

    [Wow, that paper looks familiar. I wonder where I've seen it before… -Raymond]
  18. JimKueneman says:

    Yup, just wanted to prove your previous post that people don't read of your post completely. ;^)

    That is what happens after a long day and trying to read something when it is hard to even keep your eyes open.

    This is what I was going to link to but I had a bit of mindless web wandering and did not finish reading your post to the end and ended up where you did. (excuse #1)

    This is some background on the paper.

    http://www.ics.uci.edu/…/barney

    I looked very carefully and I don't see a link to this here, but it is very early in the morning (excuse #2)

    Jim

  19. Paul says:

    And I for one welcome our new purple dinosaur robotic overlords

  20. Dave Oldcorn says:

    Third-hand info, but I vaguely remember back in the late 90s a friend having inquired about the devkit for this and been given by Microsoft a hefty legal contract that basically said "Thou shalt not make Barney swear, on pain of death" as a precondition of getting the devkit…

  21. manyirons says:

    I always appreciated this drawing:

    http://www.textfiles.com/…/barney.txt

Comments are closed.