How does Furby do it?

What do you do in your spare time? Per­son­ally, I’ve been reading Game of Thrones and re-​​covering my couch cush­ions. Others play sports or watch movies. But I know of only one person who reverse engi­neers Furby dolls when he’s got some down time.

Yes, you read the right. Michael Cop­pola, CIS ’15, a com­puter sci­ence stu­dent set to grad­uate at the end of 2014, spent much of his semester dis­secting one of these intel­li­gent plush toys. The idea, part of a directed study with CCIS assis­tant pro­fessor William Robertson, was to iso­late the microchips on the Furby’s cir­cuit board, look at the chips under very high mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, and look into the cir­cuitry that betrays all of the Furby’s mag­ical mysteries.

After he dis­as­sem­bled the doll and got to the cir­cuit board, he dis­cov­ered that the chips were cov­ered in an opaque, unbreak­able epoxy. “The com­pany is trying hard to keep their designs secret,” he said. Which is per­haps not all that sur­prising. What is sur­prising, at least to me, is what Cop­pola did next.

Working with chem­istry pro­fessor Geoff Davies, Cop­pola man­aged to dis­solve the epoxy using nitric acid and a few other toxic ingre­di­ents. There’s a recipe for doing this sort of thing, he told me, but not many people have access to the resources and equip­ment necessary.

After iso­lating the chips from the epoxy, he said, they were no longer func­tional. Next, he worked with William Fowle, the facil­i­ties man­ager for the EM lab­o­ra­tory, to get high res­o­lu­tion images of the chips, blowing up images of that cir­cuitry to about 700 times its orig­inal size. As Cop­pola explained, “memory chips store infor­ma­tion encoded as a series of peaks and val­leys, bumps and divots that you can decode into binary.”

So, the mag­ni­fied images he got essen­tially gave him the secret blue­prints that Hasbro uses to give the neon Gremlin-​​wannabes their own per­son­al­i­ties and the ability to com­mu­ni­cate with one another.

You can read more about Coppola’s project on his blog, pop​popret​.org.