Did a Hacker Take Over the Screens in Times Square With an iPhone? Probably Not!

In the above YouTube video, the user BITcrash44 claims to hack the video screens in Times Square using just an iPhone, a weather balloon, a transmitter, and something called a "video repeater." But like anything amazing that happens on the Internet, a lot of people doubt it's real. It might just be an advertisement for video effects!

Watching the clip, it's fairly convincing, as the quality of the effects, if that's what they are, is impressive. But using some common sense, we'd like to imagine that taking over some of the largest, most prominent video screens in the world would require a little bit more effort.

DesignYouTrust.com, one site that posted the YouTube video, is currently down, but when one Twitter user saw the clip, he automatically doubted it, based largely on the surrounding website (see update below). "As cool as that looks, it's a hoax," he wrote. "The focus on video effects on the rest of the site is pretty sufficient proof."

(UPDATE: Here's the video posted at Momentum Blog, the aforementioned effects blog, by Alexandros Maragos, whose About Me section notes an emphasis on "HDSLR Cinematography, Cinematic Documentary, Modern Filmmaking & Contemporary Photography." We've reached out to Maragos looking for some more info. If you have insight either way, email.)

YouTube commenters voiced distrust, too, based partly on the fact that the YouTube account that uploaded the video never existed before this clip, with one user noting that when that happens, "Alarm bells instantly start sounding."

The same commenter noticed that BITcrash44, the iPhone Times Square hacker, favorited a video with the following description:

"HeadBlade hired viral marketing agency Thinkmodo to create an engaging and entertaining video to get people talking about head shaving. Thinkmodo created "The Shaving Helmet" which quickly became a global viral sensation and sparked conversations about head shaving around the world."

Others note the technology limitations of the equipment used, casting doubt on the authenticity of the prank, while some are willfully ignorant. "Holly $hiiiiiit!" writes one commenter.

As fun as it can be to get excited about a YouTube video, we're going to side with the skeptics: This one stinks of bullshit.

UPDATE 2: Maragos, the video equipment blogger mentioned above, tells us that he too initially doubted the veracity of the stunt, but now thinks "the motion of the camera is too choppy to quick-edit and mask the video." That said, "this kind of editing is very doable, but it also needs a lot of time to do it so perfectly with this kind of footage. One of the things that makes me believe that the video is real are the reflections appearing on screen at 0:56 right and left of his transmission."

But more YouTube commenters are chiming in with dissenting opinions: "The image in the display moves slightly at 0:37-0:39. Good attempt if this was a one time view on TV, but unfortunately it's on YouTube where anything that doesn't look perfect can be analyzed over and over again."

We've sent a message to the YouTube uploader BITcrash44 and will update if we hear back.

[jcoscarelli@villagevoice.com / @joecoscarelli]



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8 comments
me
me

Other noticeable errors:

0:35 See duplicate image in background (noted in the article.)0:40 Notice delay of about 1/2 second from iphone to screen.0:56 Iphone is now about 1/10 second BEHIND screen.1:36 Iphone is now about 1/2 second BEHIND screen.1:42 Big screen shows an EXTRA hand swing while iphone doesnt.

Still a very neat trick!

Vlad
Vlad

Someone mentioned this on youtube, and I looked it over myself to confirm. Pretty sure this completely solves the mystery. bendyvinyl says:The device maybe fake but the video isn't....0:35 is the giveaway. Look 20m down the street behind the screen; you can see the video transitioning to the one on the iphone. The video actually does appear on the screen... that's because someone has paid to put it on the loop. The interesting question is, who paid for it and why.

zeusdidit
zeusdidit

more like design you can't trust.

Moderndemagogue
Moderndemagogue

This is simply not possible and not the way these screens work. I've made ads for these screens, they would break if the format were not right. They don't intelligently auto-orient

Doing comps like this is pretty trivial these days and Times Square is one place where you can do commercial filming without a permit so who knows what it was shot on, particularly given the highest resolution available is 720p giving you a 1.5x blow up based on a 1080 image to add jitter or anything like that if you wanted to shoot it for real.

Other giveaways are perfect length of 2:00, starts and stops / editing is very professional, properly timed, sound design, camera work is too good and not choppy enough

And oh, basic physics. You can hijack images wirelessly but it requires a huge amount of power and it is very difficult if the screen is already emitting an image, and it works a lot better using CRTs to hijack radios where the magnets and power levels involved can physically influence an EM field. Doing so in the inverse would require a giant van, and a camera pointed at the image to analyze what's going on.

Guest
Guest

Why aren't there reaction shots of people on the street? If it happened, it would have been easy to grab a bystander and say "watch this!"

Not that you couldn't fake that too...

Rik Willard
Rik Willard

As a person who has consulted on several of those screens in Times Square as well as other landmark locations (Harlem's Apollo Theater, Vegas Strip), it's not as crazy as it might seem. Nor do the hacker's linkstreams or surrounding site content prove malfeasance - or plain old BS. Because screens he's addressed are HDMI they "may" allow a hole for remote takeover by a transmitter/repeater scenario. I would say it depends on the transmitter in question, acting like a remote control device, more than the off-the-shelf repeater. I think this might be doable. Also by following his linkstream what you've proven is that he has an eye for disruptive media. This would be an excellent sniping tool for (admittedly nefarious) advertisers: it is the essence of "guerilla" media - or "sniping" - an established way of doing business in the marketing world, which is due for a digital upgrade sooner or later. The argument can be made that his checking out Thinkmodo is pretty consistent with media sniping studies. I would say that while the jury is out on this one - the technical feasibility is at least theoretically sound. There would be quite a ways to go to make it a viable snipe, though, in terms of image quality, signal integrity, etc. As for YouTube "alarm bells"... just because he's new on YouTube doesn't mean he's not on to something. I'm going to get my engineers on this one.

Dogzilla
Dogzilla

One important detail that counts greatly against the possible veracity of this video: the transmitter is conencted to the iPhone's headphone jack (top of phone) instead of video out (bottom of phone). For this to be real, it would also require some pretty low-level hacking of the iPhone's innards and a custom-written application. Barely within the realm of possible, but extremely unlikely.

Basil Glew-Galloway
Basil Glew-Galloway

actually, a number of non-audio devices plug into the headphone jack. I just got this credit card pay fob thing for my iphone that reads and accepts credit card payments that plugs into the headphone jack.

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