OH, THE heady days of 2007! The economy was booming, we were living it up on credit and grabbing the latest gadgets. What a difference a year makes. With the credit crunch biting, jobs vanishing and recession looming worldwide, this Christmas is looking a rather bleak affair.
Consumers said they would be spending 7 per cent less on presents this year, according to a survey at the end of October by business consultants Deloitte. That doesn't mean you have to act like Ebeneezer Scrooge, though. Why not put your technology skills to good use and build some home-made versions of the presents you want to give but can no longer afford?
It's easier than you might think. The web has a swarm of sites that show you how to make this year's must-have gadgets from heaps of electronic components and old junk. So there is no excuse not to give your mum that digital photo frame she wants or your nephew a dancing teddy. Not only might you save money and keep tech junk from the dump, your friends and family are more likely to cherish a home-made present than something acquired with a wave of a bank card. At least, so says Eric Wilhelm, who has created Instructables.com, a website forum for people to share their home-made projects.
While studying for a PhD in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wilhelm took up kite surfing. It was an expensive hobby, though, and Wilhelm couldn't afford to buy his own gear. So he began designing his own, hand-sewing the kites and building the surfboards. "Half of the equipment performed beautifully, half failed spectacularly," recalls Wilhelm, who began documenting his designs on his own website.
Soon Wilhelm was inundated with notes from kite-surf dudes asking for advice, sharing their ideas and swapping photographs. Dealing with all the correspondence was time-consuming, and he realised that people like him needed a better way to share their projects online: Instructables was born.
Today the site has step-by-step instructions for 17,000 projects, with as many as 20 new ones added each day. Here you can find out how to make a robot like the one in the movie Wall-E, a flashlight from a Chapstick and an iPod speaker from a tin of mints. More than 350,000 fans rate other people's projects, suggest improvements and add their own photographs and videos. The most popular projects have been compiled in a book, The Best of Instructables.
Of course, people have been "hacking" and modifying - "modding" - gadgets for years. "I've always been taking things apart," says Ilya Eigenbrot, a school principal in Montreux, Switzerland. "I want to find how things work."
Eigenbrot began when he was a student in the 1980s by fixing bits of old equipment and putting together simple computers for friends. Soon he was cannibalising all types of gadgets, including an old boom box that he turned into an in-car CD player. He began by prising the CD player from its plastic casing, then connected it to the car's 12-volt battery via a voltage regulator and glued the whole thing to the dashboard. Magnets placed on top of the disc held it in place as it spun. "It would skip tracks as I drove," Eigenbrot admits, "but at least you could change the disc very easily."
He recommends scouring eBay for broken equipment. Then it's just a matter of waiting until the replacement part you need to fix it comes up for sale. Alternatively, if you're after a common gadget like a laptop, you'll find eBay is awash with machines with cracked screens, faulty hard drives and missing keys. Buy three with different faults, strip them down, reassemble the working parts and you can have a perfect laptop for less than £20.
You don't even have to be handy with a soldering iron to make techie gifts. With pliers, a penknife and some silicone sealant you can transform a Lego brick into a trendy USB flash memory stick. Similar designs cost a small fortune from gift catalogues, yet many companies now give away the central component - a USB stick - for free, says Ian Hampton from Oxford, UK, whose instructions are published on Instructables.
You don't even have to be handy with a soldering iron to make techie gifts
Eigenbrot worries that the popularity of websites such as Instructables will lead to a run on components. "Supplies have dwindled in the past couple of years," he laments. "People know what they are looking for, so it's getting harder to pick up a bargain."
For most modders and hackers, though, saving money isn't the point. "People make things to express themselves," says Wilhelm. "It's a backlash against mass consumerism. When you make something, you value it more and have a deeper connection with it." Better still, your loved ones will appreciate the time and effort you have put into their gifts.
Perhaps that's just as well, because home-made isn't always cheaper. As anyone who bakes can testify, a shop-bought cake is usually cheaper than the individual ingredients. Technology is no exception.
Be inventive, though, and your home-made presents could even earn you money. Two years ago Joe Langevin, an electronics graduate from Seattle, launched the website Hack N Mod (www.hacknmod.com) for people to share their hacked and modified gadgets. He pays $40 to anyone who submits an original project that he features on his website. Who knows, you could be one of the few making a profit this credit-crunch Christmas.
Pimp my present
Autonomous Cookie Monster
Awww, some hackers just can't resist a cuddly toy. The Toy Retailers Association in the UK and Ireland has picked an all-singing, all-dancing version of the Sesame Street character Elmo as one of its top toys for Christmas, but a more heavyweight Sesame Street character could give Elmo a run for his money - the autonomous Cookie Monster.One modder on Hackaday.com took a Cookie Monster soft toy and removed the stuffing. He then wrapped the fur around the legs and torso of a walking robot toy. To make the Cookie Monster's arms and head move, he inserted servo motors, like those in a remote-controlled plane, and added wheels to his feet. To help the Cookie Monster build up a rough picture of its environment and avoid obstacles he also hid an ultrasonic distance sensor inside its mouth. Finally he added a programmable micro-controller to coordinate its movements before sewing Cookie Monster back up. For details, see www.tinyurl.com/66unc6.
Nintendo Wii balance board
Nintendo's Wii games console has already provided rich pickings to hackers and modders. So they couldn't fail to rise to the challenge this year as the world went crazy for the Wii Fit exercise system. Wii Fit users stand on a wireless Balance Board that detects their centre of balance and relays this information to the console, which can then simulate anything from a yoga instructor to a virtual pair of skis. Over 2 million systems were sold between July and September, and even now you'll be hard pushed to find one in stock. In the US, online retailer Amazon is limiting the number of Wii Fits each household can buy to three - presumably to prevent people buying them up by the dozen to sell on eBay.You can cut out the queues - and beat the eBay profiteers - by doing what Californian blogger Mike Sylvester did. He has built his own version of the balance board after spending $20 on materials from his local hardware store. Its key component is the standard motion-sensing "Wiimote" wireless controller for the Wii. This he places inside some foam pipe insulation glued to the top of a laminate board. Textured tape on the board's surface prevents players sliding off, and more pipe insulation is glued to the edges to stop the board damaging the floor. To make a fulcrum, Sylvester glues tennis balls to the board's underside. You'll need to reprogram the Wiimote too, but soon you could be snowboarding down a hillside with the best of them. For details, see www.tinyurl.com/2fj2c4.
Digital photo frame
Instructables.com has step-by-step instructions for several different home-made frames, including a 10-inch design made from parts that you should find on eBay for around $100. This may not seem any cheaper than a ready-made version until you consider that you could make one using a 17-inch screen for about the same cost. A ready-made frame that big will set you back around $400.You'll need to be comfortable taking apart electronics for this one, though, as its key ingredients are the LCD screen and hard drive from a laptop. You also need a touch-sensitive screen the same size as the LCD display, two sheets of Perspex (Plexiglas), some screws and lots of double-sided sticky tape. For details see www.tinyurl.com/6qaw44.
iPod speakers and cellphone charger
Share your playlists for less. Instructables contributor Justin Seiter has built an iPod speaker from a musical greeting card, a pair of old headphones and an empty cereal packet. Inside cards that play a tune when opened, you'll find a loudspeaker. Remove it and connect it to the wires of the headphones. The headphone jack then plugs into the iPod as usual. Not loud enough? To amplify the music, cut a hole for the speaker in the cereal box. Who'd have thought Rice Krispies could do more than snap, crackle and pop? For details, see www.tinyurl.com/5rkz5n.The same project site also shows you how you can make your own portable USB charger for your iPod, cellphone or digital camera using two AA batteries enclosed within an empty tin of mints. For details, see www.tinyurl.com/253zcv.
OK, so you won't fool anyone with this poor man's iPhone, but it's still fun to make and doesn't require a degree in electronics. It involves gluing together an old cellphone and Apple's first-generation iPod Nano, so you can both make calls and listen to the music you've downloaded from iTunes. According to the tutorial on Instructables, you need to carve out part of the cellphone's innards to make room for the iPod, which you then glue inside. However, New Scientist staff were impressed with an even cruder version made by winding a rubber band around an iPod and cellphone placed back to back. Would you want one for Christmas, though? For details, see www.tinyurl.com/3297qu.
Remember the Segway, the ride-on, self-balancing scooter that was going to revolutionise the way we travel - and didn't? A new Segway will set you back around $6000, but Geoffrey Bennett can make you look ridiculous for far less. His home-made version is put together from two second-hand electric wheelchair motors, with the gearbox, hub, wheel and tyre attached, plus a gyroscope and accelerometer picked up from an electronics store. Bennett's device is powered by six 12-volt batteries and styled using two planks of wood, a broomstick and gaffer tape. For details, see www.tinyurl.com/5tre2u.