Feed your cat and have your fun

Makeshift technological hybrids can find new uses for obsolete devices.

November 1, 2005 03:04
4 minute read.
tech hybrid 298.88

tech hybrid 298.88. (photo credit: )

We're about 25 years into the digital age now, if you figure that personal computers took off in about 1980 (wasn't that the year they invented Wordstar?). Even if you've only been around for some of that time, chances are you've been collecting digital equipment. And as good, frugal consumers, you've tried to make your investment last. Despite their being cheaper than ever, PCs and their attendant components are still expensive enough; though in the "old days" you spent a lot more and got a lot less. Nevertheless, back then you didn't really have a choice; computer proliferation and market penetration wasn't what it is today, and most machines were sold by large corporations that insisted on providing "service." Those were the days when geeks like me pored through 700 pages of Computer Shopper magazine (http://shopper.cnet.com/4002-7409_9-5510693.html) looking for a bargain. I shudder to think how much I spent on "bargains" that were replaced by new technology only a little while later! And if you're the type that doesn't like to throw stuff away, on the premise that it may come in handy "someday," tallying up the bottom line is especially easy - and painful. On a recent cleaning binge, I came across old PCs, peripherals, wires, cables, etc. What was I thinking when I bought all this stuff? But it seemed like the smart thing to do at the time, and the truth is, if the equipment allowed me to be productive, it probably earned its keep. But it still pains me to see this once-valuable stuff collecting dust. Can't some productive role be found for a 486 motherboard, for example? Surely there must be something you can do with a 56K modem (maybe if I put the five I have together I can get a 256mb ADSL connection?) And surely an old 4 ppm laser printer (don't ask me how much I paid for it in 1992, because if I even think of the amount I'll faint!) must have some use in the modern four-color 360 dpi $50 inkjet printer era? Obviously, the answer is "yes" - otherwise I wouldn't be raising the issue! If you're good with tools and a soldering iron, there are actually lots of things you can do with old technology - and if you aren't (like me), you can still get a vicarious thrill out of seeing how people are using outmoded components to create innovative projects. EXAMPLES? WELL, how about a device that will automatically chop up food and chute it into your cat's bowl - using the guts of an old VCR! To quote the author of this project, "Any old VCR has a programmable timer that connects to motors for recording TV shows. This is analogous to feeding a cat, and following this principle, you can convert a VCR into a weekend pet feeder." Add a food chopper, a videotape, some nuts and bolts and a glue gun, and thanks to your new "programmabowl feeder," you'll never have to ruin another weekend by rushing home to feed puss! Pretty cool, huh? A little creativity can make a big difference, and the pages of Make magazine (http://makezine.com), where this project was written up, describe lots of other creative things to do with obsolete equipment (do they even sell movies on video anymore)? Make offers a second life for all sorts of components and appliances you thought would never see the light of day again. According to the people behind Make - O'reilly Publishing, which publishes computer and tech books on almost every topic - the idea is not just to find a use for old stuff; it's to find ways of using old technology to make life easier for far less than you would pay for a commercial solution. ONE OF the more expensive options in a home theater system, for example, are "shaker seats," where the seating moves in tandem with the action. Such chairs cost close to $1,000 from the store, Make says - or about $30 if you make it out of speaker wire and an old amp. If you have a home theater system, rumble seats are probably something you never thought you'd able to afford, but Make makes it possible for less than you could have imagined! The projects in Make are rated on a scale from easy to difficult, with many falling in the middle. The mechanical projects, of course, require drills, screwdrivers and the like (one of the issues has a complete list of all the tools you might need, with approximate prices for "regular" and "superior" versions). But not all the projects in Make are mechanically oriented; several articles discuss upgrading old computer equipment (like Atari 2600s and Tandy TRS 80s!), making a mini-robot out of a mouse, developing new search patterns for Google, turning your Macintosh into a high-definition TV, how to build and distribute podcasts, and loads of other stuff. Make is unique as a magazine that melds old and new technology, amalgamating mechanical and high-tech methods to produce new, useful and unique products. It's fun just to read about these projects... even if you don't own a cat! Make comes out four times a year, in both a print and digital (PDF) edition. The digital edition is $26.95 per year, which sounds pricy for a quarterly publication. But remember, it will take you a couple of months to do each issue justice. Ds@newzgeek.com

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