In 2020 there is nothing novel or exciting about an online device. Even the most capable models are designed to be unobrusive pucks and smart speakers; their function lies in what they do rather than in how they look. In 2005, an Internet connected device was a rare curiosity, a daring symbol of a new age: the “Internet of Things”!
Our fridges were going to suggest recipes based upon their contents, and very few people had yet thought of the implications of an always-on connected appliance harvesting your data on behalf of a global corporation. Into this arena stepped the Nabaztag (from the Armenian for “rabbit”), an information appliance in the form of a stylised French plastic rabbit that could deliver voice alerts, and indicate status alerts by flashing lights and moving its ears.
Le Premier Lapin Connecté, Ensuite Le Premier Lapin Disconnecté
If this sounds unexpected now, in 2005 it was the darling of the more technically literate chattering classes, hailed as the dawn of a new future in online information and appearing as a piece of art rather than consumer electronics. Quality magazine columnists raved about them, though some spied a glimpse of what future devices would bring in addressing their faults, and for a while an odd anthropomorphic plastic light-up rabbit became an object of desire.
The tale of an IoT startup that gains a lot of traction but fails to create sufficient market is a familiar one to us today, but while the French company Violet who created the Nabaztag were by no means the first in the field to falter they were an early high-profile case of a hardware device being orphaned when its servers left the Internet. Financial troubles led to a sale to the game developer Mindscape, but even that failed to save the device and its servers were turned off in 2011. Since then the remaining Nabaztags have remained alive through the efforts of a hacking community that has grown up around them, with boards such as the Raspberry Pi providing replacement Nabaztag servers.
What’s Beneath That Cute Exterior?
The Nabaztag has always wielded a curious fascination for me as one of the iconic early internet information appliances. They were too expensive for an impulse buy in 2005, but they can now be had for less than a Raspberry Pi 4 via your favourite online auction house. So a couple of years ago I bought a brand new and boxed example, on which I’m now going to perform a teardown. There were three models with varying functionality, mine is the original Nabaztag from 2005.
Out of the box comes a power adapter, instruction leaflet, and the bunny itself. It’s a roughly conical white plastic device about 150 mm (just below 6″) high whose circular base is about 130 mm (5″) in diameter, tapering to around 80 mm (3.25″) at its top. On its front is printed a stylised rabbit face, in the centre at the top is a white plastic button, and either side at its top are mounted a pair of 100 mm (4″) long plastic ears. These are detachable, held on by magnets, and they can be rotated to point anywhere from straight up to out sideways from the body. At the rear bottom is a power jack for the 8 V DC supply, and a three-position volume switch for the internal speaker.
Turning it over, there are a couple of screws holding the base and body together, requiring a tamper-resistant triangular screwdriver. I found a tri-wing driver could unscrew them with a bit of care, and soon had the body apart to reveal the inner workings. Inside is a vertical black plastic chassis with PCB on one side and speakers and ear motors with their small position sensor PCBs on the other, and a series of black plastic light guides protruding from the front of the PCB. Examining the board, all peripheral cables are neatly mounted with sockets at the edge of the board, and all parts save for an L293D motor controller in a DIP package are surface-mount. Of note are the PIC18F6525 microcontroller that forms the brains of the unit, an OKI ML2870A sound chip, and an Atmel AT45DB161B 16 megabit Flash chip.
This is a WiFi enabled device, so I was expecting also to find a screened can on the board containing the WiFi chipset and RF circuitry. Instead I was surprised to find a PCMCIA socket on the reverse side of the PCB, and in it a Benq 801.11B 11 megabit PCMCIA WiFi card. By 2005 these were starting to disappear from laptops as USB and built-in devices took on that role, so it’s an unexpected find. It is especially unusual to see a microcontroller driving this interface, but considering that it had its roots in early-90s portable computing it’s hardly beyond this PIC’s capabilities.
Making Sense Of A Nabaztag In 2020
There are a range of options to get your Nabaztag working in 2020, including the Nabaztaglives Raspberry Pi server, OpenJabNab, and even a ServerlessNabaztag firmware. Of most interest though is the TagTagTag, a Raspberry Pi Zero-based upgrade board produced by the original Nabaztag designers, the second crowdunded production run of which has now been suspended due to COVID-19. Not having a TagTagTag, I set out to connect my Nabaztag to one of the first two options, and that’s where I hit a snag.
Out of the box, the Nabaztag appears to attempt to connect to an open WiFi network, and from there try to reach the now-defunct Nabaztag server. It’s an echo of a more innocent time of 11 megabit wireless networking, when WEP was still considered secure and many networks had no security whatsoever. To connect to a secured network reveals another reminder of times past, powering the device up with the button pressed causes it to set up a peer-to-peer wireless network on which can be accessed a web interface. If you are young enough never to have used peer-to-peer wireless you should consider yourself lucky, because it was unreliable at the best of times and thus a modern device would invariably set up a temporary hotspot to do the same job. Modern devices support peer-to-peer networking, but here was where I drew a blank. I have no device that can connect to my Nabaztag. Several evenings of fruitless tweaking of settings on Linux, Android, and ChromeOS devices left me able to see the network but unable to form a connection with it. Evidently there is some setting that a 2005-era Windows XP laptop would have, but here in 2020 I’m simply unable to make it happen. We’ve all heard of digital obsolescence when it comes to media formats and other files, it’s unexpected to find it in a forgotten section of a protocol that’s very much still part of our everyday life.
So my Nabaztag isn’t much use as it stands, though it makes a pretty desk ornament and a talking point in itself. It’s easy enough to hack its internals and there is part of me that is tempted to put together my own board with probably an ESP32 for brains. I find it fascinating though for what it teaches us about the progression of IoT devices since 2005. A PIC driving a PCMCIA card might seem impossibly quaint to us now, but in 2005 they really were pushing the boundaries of what was possible in an appliance. Today’s equivalent would almost certainly have Linux-capable processor and/or an infinitely cleverer cloud service behind it. It might even have the WiFi electronics on the same die as the core! That we can buy processors that do all this in single quantities for only a dollar or two is a minor miracle, and the Nabaztag is a reminder of how far we’ve come.