The Tom Sawyer of Innovation

When Nintendo released its Wii videogame console in December 2006, it was sold out before it hit the shelves. Stores had more advance orders than they could fill. The company went on to sell more than 20 million Wii consoles within the first year, outselling the next most popular gaming systems, the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, combined. But the real significance of the Wii may come from another statistic: 500,000. That's the number of people who downloaded, in a single four-month period, Johnny

Chung Lee's software for turning the Wii's unique handset—which allows the player to control the action on screen with a wave of the hand—into something that has nothing to do with videogames: the "pen" for a digital whiteboard, on which people can write and draw from a distance. Lee is one of a growing community of programmers who have expropriated the technology behind the Wii for their own inventions, using it in ways Nintendo never intended. The result has been a groundswell of innovation that so far Nintendo wants no part of.

The Wii's remote handset—or, as fans dubbed it, the WiiMote—is the main reason for the game console's appeal. It has a motion sensor, and a tiny camera to track points of light from an infrared light emitter on top of the television. That allows the player to manipulate the action (whether the stroke of a pen or of a tennis racket) with the same wrist or arm motion used to produce a written word, or a topspin backhand, in real life. This unique ability to connect player to screen also makes Wii an irresistible target for amateur programmers, who have used the WiiMote to control everything from remote-control cars to robotic arms. Best of all, the WiiMote is within the budget of even the humblest basement wizard. "For $40, you get this little device that has LEDs, a rumble motor, a three-axis accelerometer, an infrared sensor and buttons," says Brian Peek, a developer for the software consulting firm ASPSOFT who builds new applications for the WiiMote in his spare time.

Last March, Peek posted what he calls a WiiMote library on his Web site—a collection of codes that other programmers can download, then use to build WiiMote applications of their own. Peek's library acts as a sort of translator between the WiiMote and a computer, "breaking the code of the WiiMote," says Peek. He estimates that his library has been downloaded tens of thousands of times. Lee, who does research on human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, used Peek's codes to design the WiiMote Whiteboard, then posted the software online free of charge, as well as instructions on how to create the hardware.

One of Lee's other gizmos is an even more radical spin on the Wii system. Nintendo designed the WiiMote to send a signal to a sensor bar on top of a TV. Lee found that by reversing the two—placing the WiiMote on the TV, and holding the sensor bar to his forehead—he could use the WiiMote's infrared emitters to create a 3-D effect on the screen, through what he calls a headtracker. Lee uses the metaphor of looking through a window at a pair of trees: when you move your head from right to left, the tree on the right appears to get smaller, while the tree on the left gets bigger. His headtracker aims to reproduce that visual effect on the screen. "If the computer knows where your head is in relation to the television," says Lee, "it can turn the monitor into a window into a virtual space." Lee's headtracker software has been downloaded 150,000 times, and he says several major game studios that already make Wii games have expressed interest in using headtracking to make their games more exciting.

Nintendo is selling software, called WiiWare, that allows users to design their own games, but so far it's taken little interest in the more ambitious spinoffs. Peek says the company "is so focused on hooking stuff up to the television" that it isn't sure how to react to more-innovative uses of the WiiMote, like Lee's headtracker. "I'm always waiting for the day when Nintendo says, 'Stop doing what you're doing'," says Peek. "But I've received no communication from them." Nintendo spokeswoman Denise Kaigler stopped short of endorsing the spinoffs. "The public has surprised us with the many different ways that Wii has inspired people to create wild new uses for the Wii Remote," she writes in an e-mail. "The Wii Remote was created to play on the Wii system only, so we don't encourage using it for any other purpose."

The hands-off approach may be good strategy on Nintendo's part. Michael Pachter, a research analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities who specializes in the gaming industry, believes that Nintendo is biding its time, watching what developers like Lee come up with so they can plan the next generation of their products. "Nintendo's looking at this, I'm sure, and wondering what the opportunity is to commercially exploit these ideas," says Pachter. "And when they figure that out, they'll either embrace it or steal it." Like a technological Tom Sawyer, Nintendo is letting independent inventors do its product research free of charge. Why shut them down? If the company is serious about picking up the pace of innovation, Pachter has a piece of advice for dealing with WiiMote pioneers like Lee. "What Nintendo really should do," he says, "is hire people like him."