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VideoNOW PVD Reverse Engineering 195

Zoc_All_Alone writes "In mid-July, Hasbro released the VideoNOW, a portable media player for kids. The disks are specially encoded ~3 inch audio CDs. We have started a project to reverse engineer the format, and have made considerable progress. More information about the player can be found at the Hasbro website."
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VideoNOW PVD Reverse Engineering

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 03, 2003 @11:40PM (#6865836)
    I have reported you to the authorities for reverse engineering this. Please remain at your location; the SWAT team is on the way.
    • Re:DMCA VIOLATION (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Nova1313 ( 630547 ) on Thursday September 04, 2003 @12:04AM (#6865939)
      yeah really it's sad but anything that mentions reverse engineering anymore gets a comment like this. It's not a bad comment the problem is that it's so true. Everyone is sue happy.
    • Re:DMCA VIOLATION (Score:2, Interesting)

      by myom ( 642275 )
      I was really grumpy this morning, and a bit sick of the town where I live in. I thought I'd look into working elsewhere for a while. Perhaps in Europe outside of Sweden, where I live now, or perhaps in the USA. I got to work, and as every hard working employee I begin the day by reading Slashdot. I read this article about this silly little case-modding material using some "proprietary" technology that is not even encoded, and thus easy to reverse-engineer. I realsied that the DMCA would probably apply and
    • In Japan, they have HELLO KITTY.

      In America, we have HELLO DMCA.
    • "I have reported you to the authorities for reverse engineering this. Please remain at your location; the SWAT team is on the way."

      How awful that people post comments like this on something which is specifically allowed and encouraged by copyright law.
  • by zifty ( 692892 )
    But where are the people reverse engineering the EARLY kids' consoles, like the Socrates? I'm sure there are a few left in your collective attics...
  • by mmoncur ( 229199 ) * on Wednesday September 03, 2003 @11:40PM (#6865841) Homepage
    The VideoNOW Linux Project can't be far behind.

    I'm sure Hasbro will nip this in the bud as soon as they realize someone could market their own shows for it. (Or, god-forbid, porn!)
    • by Anonymous Coward
      "I'm sure Hasbro will nip this in the bud as soon as they realize someone could market their own shows for it. (Or, god-forbid, porn!)"

      If they did that? Would it be kiddie-porn?
  • DMCA (Score:5, Funny)

    by Erick the Red ( 684990 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2003 @11:43PM (#6865857)
    We have started a project to reverse engineer the format, and have made considerable progress. So far we have been sued for $10 million, and we are posting in hope of gaining even more attention to our work.
  • I just hope you guys are not in the US...

    One is never too careful nowadays...

  • let's support them (Score:3, Interesting)

    by SHEENmaster ( 581283 ) <travis.utk@edu> on Wednesday September 03, 2003 @11:45PM (#6865866) Homepage Journal
    By buying units, and making certain the manufacturer knows we're buying them as a result of the project, thereby preventing a DMCA lawsuit that would only result in massive boycotting on our part.

    On the other hand, it's easier to just sit and type about how much the DMCA sucks and how cool reverse engineering is.
    • by dasmegabyte ( 267018 ) <> on Wednesday September 03, 2003 @11:51PM (#6865890) Homepage Journal
      No thanks. It's an ugly black and white video player which uses a stupid format. Besides, I already have this LAPTOP.
    • like any other console, they plan to make revenue selling hillary duff songs for it and that sort of shit.

      I'm sure they just wont care. This hack is of interest to about a dozen people worldwide, and I doubt there will be a big 0-day-videomanZ scene.

      MS and Sony dont make too big of a deal over modding, and they have something to lose.
      • This hack is of interest to about a dozen people worldwide

        Hmmm.. I wonder who the other 11 people are?

        My girlfriend has two kids from former relationships; a son who is 14 and a daughter who is 5. Due to the difference in their ages, there isn't much they can agree on to watch, so putting a DVD player in our vehicle for long car trips would be kind of pointless. However, for only $100 I could buy two of these so they could each have one, and if I could figure out how to rip a DVD and put it on one or m
    • Right on, excellent point. The product was *just* released and at the rate the project is progressing, I expect that in a few weeks they'll be burning their own discs. At $50 a pop, it's a pretty cool & affordable project. A poster below points out that B & W was given up in the Nixon administration; however, I'm sure there's a colour one in the works.
      • Re:right on (Score:2, Interesting)

        I'm sure there's a colour one in the works.

        Maybe B&W was chosen because it decreased the memory requirements of the video...

        Unless they increase the memory capacity of those discs (which would drive up the cost) or decrease the duration of each video, they probably can't do color.

  • One Question; (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Honig the Apothecary ( 515163 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2003 @11:49PM (#6865877)

    It is freakin grayscale for christsakes. Most people gave up on Black and White video somewhere around the Nixon Administration in the U.S.

    Its cute and all, but go buy a portable DVD and go find a project where you are not going to run the risk of being sued into oblivion by the borg of Hasbro.

    • Re:One Question; (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Crash6-24 ( 704161 )
      Why? Because it's there! Every product has some mystery (or proprietary stuff) that someone just has to explore. These guys are probably engineers in real life.
      • These guys are probably engineers in real life.

        I got news for you, buddy.

        This IS their real life!

        Thats what they do, seriously. RTFA.

        Just college kids with nothing better to do than fiddle about in the toy section at Wal-Mart.
      • But for $50 on eBay I'm sure you could get something with much better specs than 80x80 with 16 levels of gray. Even those ancient Casio "portable TV" sets had much better specs than that. Heck, any digital camera with minimalistic "motion video" capture probably is higher quality than this. For about $50 to $100 more you could get an old laptop with a 10 or 12" 1024x768 display with true color, and you'd be able to actually USE that for stuff other than watching little clips.

        I mean really, it sure would
    • Seriously, there's good reasons to want to reverse-engineer this thing, not least of all the fact that some geeks do, in fact, have children. It's nice to pay $5 for a single episode of SpongeBob or whatever, but wouldn't it be even better if we could encode the format on our own recordable mini-CDs? Why pay for SpongeBob episodes in crummy b&w format when you can download them from KaZaa... er, import them using a video card... and burn them on $0.25 CD-Rs?
  • standard formats (Score:5, Informative)

    by shird ( 566377 ) on Wednesday September 03, 2003 @11:53PM (#6865897) Homepage Journal
    After reading through the couple of updates they have, I get the impression that the format is actually a standard used somewhere but these guys just haven't figured out what it is.

    They seem to be wasting their time grabbing frames and converting from jpegs etc. They should just try work out what the standard is. Afterall, why would the developers of the VideoNOW spend the time and money developing some new format when there are heaps out there already. They are already using a non-standard CD size to stop people just playing the discs on their own machines, and people wouldn't pay $8 for a few b/w low res cartoons to play on their own machines anyway. - so why use a propriety format?
    • by pr0ntab ( 632466 ) <> on Thursday September 04, 2003 @12:12AM (#6865985) Journal
      It's just video in the standard duh-duh format, replacing the right audio channel. It's uncompressed, and the screen is 80x80, so there's only so many combinations of fps, bit depth to choose from. I wouldn't call it a standard, it isn't really encoded at all. The bitmap data is just, kinda there, like PCM audio.

      They don't list an extraction step, but I assume it's CDDA. The mysterious packets in the audio track "left channel" might be used to help that extraction process on a cheap playback device, or provide error correction information that would normally be present in a Yellow Book format.

      I don't think there's any standard out there for cramming video in an audio channel in a strange packeting format with a hack to read timing information out of the other channel. These seem like very hardware-oriented, cost based design decisions.
    • by stratjakt ( 596332 ) on Thursday September 04, 2003 @12:16AM (#6866000) Journal
      A standard. It sure is!

      Its called the "bunch of grayscale bitmaps one after another" standard. Audio in one channel, video in the other. Pretty much the most obvious way any reasonable designer would put it together.

      The VideoNOW itself has no ability to decompress video or do anything fancy. Just load a pixmap into an 80x80 register array 15 times a second. I'm not the least bit shocked the bitmaps are already 80x80 hex arrays, ready to go.

      Its unlikely Hasbro was ever concerned about someone hacking a goofy little kids toy that'll cost 20 bucks come christmas time.
      • by Speare ( 84249 ) on Thursday September 04, 2003 @08:26AM (#6867598) Homepage Journal

        Its unlikely Hasbro was ever concerned about someone hacking a goofy little kids toy that'll cost 20 bucks come christmas time.

        In many cases, the toy industry is second only to black operations national defense contractors, in how tightly they control their technology. If a toy becomes at all popular, they will be dissected and reproduced cheaper by a knock-off company. So they often obfuscate and epoxy as much as possible about the design.

        In this case, it is the lucrative accessories market they're ceding by not protecting their design carefully enough... a big surprise.

    • " They are already using a non-standard CD size to stop people just playing the discs on their own machines..."

      Um no, they use those discs to make it small. Do you think the project would work if they had to buy some proprietary drive? No. Incidentally, I have a stack of 2.5" (or 3"?) CD-RWs sitting right here on my desk. They may not be mainstream but non-standard? Same laser reads them.

      "so why use a propriety format? "

      I know I've already fielded this one, but it still has to be said, duh!
  • is a scary thing sometimes. I really can't get interested in hacking a gray scale video codec just for grins. The only possible use I can think of is that by reverse engineering the code you would be able to make 30 min. text documents available on the go. Kind of along the lines of e-books I guess. Might call them E-white papers.
    • ... so when someone comes up with that idea in the next 12 months you can sue them two years down the line and make your money.

      Of course, set up a shell company with the sole purpose of exploting IP rights. :-)
    • then you want the sony bookman.

      it takes 3 inch cd's and has a keyboard and B&W display for access to the texts and images on the CD. (and you can put wav files in there too)

      It's a neat thing that I had about 5 books for it, hacked the flat file database format for it and then sat there pissed because 3 inch CDR's were not available in 1997....

      they were a neat idea, the E-book before the e-book... but they failed miserably... sales were dismal and the sony store in chicago gave away hundreds of the bo
    • The only possible use I can think of is that by reverse engineering the code you would be able to make 30 min. text documents available on the go. Kind of along the lines of e-books I guess. Might call them E-white papers.

      Why would you want to hack this device in order to display text on an 80x80 pixel screen?

      Get yourself a used palm for the same money (or less) and view them on a 160x160 screen without having to convert them to video or burn a CD.

      No, it seems the only real use for this would be for a

  • No Color ?? (Score:1, Redundant)

    by sPaKr ( 116314 )
    I know Color LCD's are more expensive.. But really.. Black and white in this day and age. The LCD is 80x80 already.. so the res is like insanly horrable. If it was color it might be mildly intresting, but as it stands it sucks.
  • He also discovered a graphic format called PPM, where graphics are defined by hexadecimal, making shades of grey.

    I think we found our new outlawed ROT13.
  • Feature? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by RedWizzard ( 192002 ) on Thursday September 04, 2003 @12:04AM (#6865945)
    From the Hasbro site:
    VIDEONOW discs feature a special proprietary format and will not fit into or play on other media players.
    How is it a feature that their discs won't play anywhere else?
    • So someone can make a disk and know that he/she will be able to SELL it w/o copies of it poping up everywhere. How did this post get a score of insightful?
      • Re:Feature? (Score:2, Flamebait)

        by RedWizzard ( 192002 )
        What are you talking about? I don't see how the lack of interoperability is any benefit to the consumer. When you sell something to the public you list features that are beneficial to the public, not "features" which are beneficial to the manufacturer or some other third party.
    • It is a feature (Score:3, Informative)

      in the same way that a wart on the end of your nose would be.
    • From the Hasbro site:
      VIDEONOW discs feature a special proprietary format and will not fit into or play on other media players.

      Comming soon to the Microsoft site:
      Microsoft Office 2003 features a special proprietary format that is not accessible to other competing office software.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    80x80 resultion with 16 shades of black...

    I'd rather watch a 30 minute animated "buddy icon."

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 04, 2003 @12:12AM (#6865986)
    16 shade greyscale on an 80x80 pixel 4"x6" LCD? For fuck's sake, that's like watching video on a TI-8X calculator! (which, incidentally, you can do []) Sure, it sounds like a fun project and all, but I don't think geeks will be rushing to encode their movies to this format so they can be played on this dinky little player. On the other hand, the player looks VERY portable and runs on 2 AA batteries. So I guess there is some potential for a low cost low resolution video/picture/text? viewer. It is interesting, at least.
  • by raytracer ( 51035 ) on Thursday September 04, 2003 @12:17AM (#6866004)

    It sounds to me like this little gadget is the modern implementation of a narrowband television. There are still guys who dink around with this stuff (indeed, I've started to assemble the parts for one myself), for fun you could try the Narrow Band Television Association [] website.

    That being said, it seems like the format can't possibly be that difficult to determine. If the authors posted .wav files of some of the audio tracks, I suspect that an afternoon's worth of work by someone familiar with NBTV would crack the modulation wide open. After all, the box itself is obviously very cheap, it probably has very little CPU power, it can't be that complicated.

    It's a pity they don't use the normal mini-CDs, if they did I might buy one just for the novelty of being able to make my own CDs. I think they missed a bit of a hacker market by deliberately disabling this possibility.

    • I think they missed a bit of a hacker market by deliberately disabling this possibility.

      The typical concern with toys is that the hackers might propagate content inappropriate for children. I'm guessing that this sort of content control was a factor here.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    and that is right now 65k+ colors , by the time you figured it out my 2003 cellphone is going to seem old, oh and it cost me nothing (0$) with my talkplan
  • ...there's still no cure for cancer

    man, i would love to have that much free time.
  • it seems almost perfect for a slashdot crowd: "watch what you want, when you want, where you want? ... VideoNOW, the future of entertainment right in your hand." Anyone want a small pr0n viewing device? I guess pr0n is pr0n, whether it be in B&W or in color.

  • Oh my God! It's the new [] Pixelvision []!

    Actually, it's not. At least, not yet. Pixelvision was so great because it was liberating. It was the video version of the portable 4-track tape recorder. It brought the DIY/Garage ethos to movie making.

    This thing is all about consuming licensed content ("Collect Them All" []) from the major media players, as if that's any big surprise. Sure, Zoc_All_Alone [] is reverse-engineering the file format, but until someone can hack a Mavica [] to record in that format, I don't thi

    • Pixelvision rocked. A good friend of mine and I both had them as kids. We did have fun with those, and I rather wish Fisher-Price still made them.

      Oh, well. With digital camcorders down in the $400 range these days and standard audiotape becoming rather a rarity these days, the PXL-2000 isn't as compelling as it used to be (microtape is a possibility, though I found out to my chagrin last night that microcassettes are probably unacceptably fragile for such an application).

      Actually, I find a trip around Toy
  • Why would you want to reverse engineer this? Why for a case mod of course! Soon, you too will be buying a VideoNOW so you can gut it and put a small LCD in a drive bay that will show video.

    Just think, you can download Lord of The Rings fron the net then the kids can crowd around and watch tiny screen.

    "When I was your age, our TV was round and 3mm across. We had to ride a bicycle generator for 8 hours to watch 21 minutes of TV."

    Seriously, it might make good modding material, but beyond that I think it is
  • by r_glen ( 679664 ) on Thursday September 04, 2003 @12:54AM (#6866140)
    "Okay Johnny, see how daddy bypasses the cryptography algorithm on this special "Sing Along Volume 5" disc? This is what us grownups call 're-verse engine-neering'" ... "But Daddy, why are you wearing an orange suit and sitting behind that glass?"
  • by mewyn ( 663989 ) on Thursday September 04, 2003 @01:17AM (#6866202) Homepage
    This seems to be a very dumb device, just displaying 15 pixmaps a second. The DMCA's anti-circumvention applies to encrypted or other anti-copying measures. If you have a data stream that's this blatantly out in the open, I would imagine that the DMCA need not apply.

    • The non-standard-sized disc is an anti-copying mechanism. "Effective" in the text of the law just means it's present, not good. Through the normal course of using the player can you extract the contents of a disc or make your own?

      Another question: through the normal course of using a computer, can you make a compatible disc? Ah!! But computers are general purpose devices. Or are they? (Or will they be?) This is one of the loopholes that the **AAs would like to close. If people are producing their own
  • I'm more interested in the innards of the device itself. What kind of "cpu" does it have? Maybe an Altera FPGA? What can this device be made to do? It's only 50$ can someone do something cool with it?
  • Reality check: maths time.

    Screen resolution = 80 * 80 = 6400 pixels
    Bits per pixel = 4
    Bits per screen = 6400 * 4 = 25600
    16 bit words per screen = 1600
    16 bit words per second per channel of CD audio = 44100

    Therefore, regular CD audio carries enough data for 44100/1600 = 441/16 = 27.5625 frames a second at this resolution. And TV only uses 25 frames a second. But this thing is reckoned to give 15 frames a second; hence there is plenty of spare space for timing information, insurance against lost bit
  • This device represents something interesting that is worth investigating.

    Not the software, which is apparently almost entirely absent, but the hardware concept.

    Unbreakable, cheap, fairly compact video on near-to-disposable media. Let's drive this up a rev and see what will be possible in two or three years time with some modest improvements.

    1. Most obviously, a larger and color display. Well, I guess OLEDs are the answer, since this is basically a toy which does not need years of lifespan.

    2. Larger si
    • This is a worthwhile goal. Certainly the device would sell millions.

      I agree - but you've got to do it fast while portable DVD players are still way expensive.

      There's not a huge cost difference between CD drives and DVD drives, DVD's already an established format and DVD decoder chips will be as cheap soon.
  • by kobotronic ( 240246 ) on Thursday September 04, 2003 @07:44AM (#6867419)
    The specs sound really poor. I don't see what the fuss is about! 80x80 pixels 'quality picture' ...

    I've made some 160x160 pixel movies (in color, using TealMovie) for my antique palm IIIc, and even that resolution, with four times as many pixels as the VideoNOW toy, was worthless for video.)

    Fifty bucks for the basic VideoNOW unit seems pretty steep considering how little you actually get and how much they're gouging the kids for the content discs - 'collect them all!'

    Judging from photographs of this unit, it's just a very basic (non-backlit) LCD screen with crappy contrast and slow refresh. Throw in awful resolution, 15fps and 8-bit sound technology from the 90s, there's just nothing in this worth much effort - the novelty value won't last long, and the actual content enjoyment will be nearly nil.

    You might compare this with the antique PixelVision thing from Fisher-Price, which is pretty cool and has a sustained cult following even to this day, but I think mostly because it's a capture system with a unique 'lens' (plastic bubble with nil-to-infinite fixed 'focus' range) and very very strange image processing. Even that thing, 15 year old mostly analog toy, has much better resolution than the VideoNOW.

    I dunno, maybe I'm just getting old, but this stuff doesn't seem very exciting to me. I can't imagine my 5-year-old nephew would be very impressed either, since he has one of those GBAs with bright backlit color screens.

    At least it doesn't seem too heavily infected by DRM.
  • When I was a kid, the much-wanted equivalent to this was a Fisher-Price movie projector that had a little screen and took cartridge filmstrips. The movies were at best a few minutes long and there was no sound. Twenty or thirty years later I see these for sale on E-bay.

    I never had one of those, but my Dad would go to yard sales and brought home a circa 1955 equivalent which was marketed by Disney and had clips from the Mickey Mouse club and other short cartoons. This was much cooler IMHO.

  • While the goal of the project currently seems to be to play the kid's movies on a PC instead of the VIDEONOW, doing the reverse seems far more interesting to me. It seems to me that it'd be straightforward to take any video material (episodes of Friends, baby pictures, whatever you've got), reduce it to 80x80 grayscale, burn it to a CD, and play it back on your own little $50 player.
  • Cmon zocher! Post the raw WAV file already. Thousand of SlasshDotters stand ready to reverse-engineer the format, and then write a media filter for it.

    Also how about creating a SourceForge [] page for it?

  • Hasbro wrote here []:

    VIDEONOW discs feature a special proprietary format and will not fit into or play on other media players.

    This is an amazing summary of how the corporate world doesn't speak with customers, they speak at customers. Only someone stuck in a corporate mindset would think that missing functionality and vendor lock in was an amazing feature that customers want.

    I understand that the product might not be financially viable without these limitations. My problem is that they brazens claim it

  • The "video encoded as audio track" got me thinking that what someone really needs to do is develop a Gameboy Advance cartridge with a stereo mini-plug jack that you can run from your cheapo portable CD player. Then, you could encode your video (as an audio stream) onto a standard CD-R, play it on your CD player, and display the video on your Gameboy.

    Given that most kids who would be interested already have these two devices, you would just be looking at the price of the GB cart.

    It'll never happen -- but
  • I noticed these in Walmart and kept meaning to see if the format was described anywhere but was too lazy. Now a link to a reverse engineering site is posted to Slashdot. All things come to those who wait.


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