Picture proof: Times Square 'video hack' a cleverly orchestrated hoax

Video of duo hijacking digital billboards in Times Square is convincing, but closer scrutiny reveals it's fake

A viral video of a man using only an iPhone 4, a homemade transmitter and repeater, a balloon, and some tape to hijack billboards in Times Square has tickled many imaginations. Whether or not the stunt is technically feasible, it's undoubtedly a hoax -- most likely some kind of publicity stunt.

The background: a YouTube user with the screen name BITcrash44 uploaded a video to YouTube. In the video, one man uses what looks like a tricked-out iPhone 4 to record a video of another man explaining he's devised a way to hack video screens, replacing one video with whatever is playing on his iPhone. They duo go on to supposedly hijack various billboards around Times Square, replacing ads and videos on the screens with the video they just recorded.

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To the creators' credit, the video is incredibly convincing, but one mistake in particular debunks the hack: Around the 35-second mark of the video as the man in the orange jacket approaches the first billboard, you can see the video appear on a different screen about a block away. It appears as a blur in the screenshot to the right; watch the video itself and it's clearer.

That revelation saps the mystique of the hoax. Observers on various forums suggest that impressive editing makes the video look remarkably convincing, with video from the phone seamlessly spliced into video of the duo walking around Times Square. But given the aforementioned mistake, it looks like the creators paid to have their video played on different digital billboards around Times Square and timed their fake transmission demo accordingly.

Still, observers have also questioned whether this little demonstration would be technically feasible. The jury is out -- but leaning toward no.

Sophos head of technology Paul Ducklin pointed out that the headphone jack on an iPhone doesn't provide video output, though commentators on other sites suggest an iPhone could be hacked to enable the feature. "The transmitter is connected 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," wrote Dogzilla in the comments section at the Village Voice.

Additionally, it's possible to change video on these types of billboards view wireless technology, but doing so would first require hacking the network. That's feasible from a technical standpoint, but not with the equipment shown in the video.

Finally, as observed by Sophos, this sort of video transmitting would require a tremendous amount of energy, and the "repeater" has no visible source of power. Nevertheless, "it seems able to blast out enough electromagnetic radiation to 'own' an apparently inexhaustible range of video displays, whether wireless or not)."

A final question: Who would pull of such a hoax and why? The most logical conclusion is it's a publicity stunt. Notably, BITcrash44 -- the original uploader -- favorited a YouTube 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." Perhaps Thinkmodo deserves credit for the hoax?

Whoever did it and for whatever reasons, it's still a hoax, albeit a pretty convincing one. Also, its success has more to do with its creators having the cash to buy ad space in Times Square than having the technical wizardry to convincingly splice videos. Presumably within the near future, the creators will reveal themselves and enjoy some publicity for their stunt.

This article, "Picture proof: Times Square 'video hack' a cleverly orchestrated hoax," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.