DefCon Night 1: Team Kegbot
LAS VEGAS, July 30 -- Spent an educational evening last night with maybe 20 hackers who were elegantly mixing alcohol and technology into a wicked cocktail recipe that is sure to revolutionize fraternity parties from this day forward. The clever concoction of which I speak is none other than the "Kegbot," an idea dreamed up by a cadre of researchers who spend most of their time working out the bugs and security traps that hound wireless networks and an up-and-coming technology known as "radio frequency identification," or RFID for short.
RFID is a technology the federal government is pushing to be incorporated into all passports needed to enter the country; it offers the ability to store information that can be read at short distances by electronic devices that can then process that information. Wal-mart is already using the technology to keep track of goods that move in and out of its warehouses and stores, and the company is moving to implement RFID into everything it has for sale on the shelves. The technology has caused a fair amount of discussion among privacy groups worried that it could be abused to spy on people and for other nefarious purposes.
Kegbot, however, relies on an RFID alternative called an "iButton" that transmits its stored information on a tiny metal button that snaps onto an electronic reader and is used to track the progress of several teams of hackers (and at least two journalists) engaged in a fairly high-tech drinking game.
The Kegbot is basically a keg inside of a mini refrigerator, the "kegerator" popular on college campuses that comes with a built-in beer tap. Each team is allotted one iButton, which they must snap onto an electronic reader on the front of the Kegbot in order to initiate the flow of suds from the tap. The mechanics of this device are simple: no iButton, no beer.
The data captured when a drinker places an iButton on the reader includes the volume of beer consumed by each team (measured in fluid ounces and fractions thereof), data that is fed through an Ethernet cord jutting out of the back of the fridge to a laptop nearby that monitors the imbibing progress of each team. When a team member snaps the iButton onto the Kegbot, a digital readout on top of the fridge greets the team by name (the team I was recruited into joining comprised mainly hacker members of the Shmoo Group -- more about them in a later post) and displays the total volume of beer team members have stomached.
Lest dear readers think this is a project dreamed up by a bunch of bored hackers, it is important to note that at least two of those involved are extremely bright technologists working for a very large Internet search engine company that I was politely asked not to name. One of Kegbot's chief architects is a guy named Mike Wakerly, who said he hopes the device will one day find a home at frat houses whose members are interested in safely conducting competitive drinking games over the Internet: Wakerly said the Kegbot can easily be configured to cut revelers off after they have had a pre-determined number of drinks, something he hopes will promote responsible partying. The next Kegbot prototype may even include a built-in breathalyzer, he said.
For the record, Team Kegbot, the group comprised mainly of people who spent nine hours soldering and splicing this device together today, won the competition hands down.
July 30, 2005; 7:32 AM ET
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