Kiwi's invention draws a blank

ADAM DUDDING
Last updated 05:00 27/01/2013
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Teaser for the Lee Bennett's assault rifle game controller, which was rejected by funding website Kickstarter for being 'too similar to a real gun'.

Lee Bennett
CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ
FIRING LINE: Lee Bennett put together a campaign to market his lifelike assault rifle game controller – including a slick video – but came unstuck when crowd-funding website Kickstarter rejected the pitch for being 'too similar to a real gun'.

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A Kiwi inventor's plan to market a computer-game controller that looks and feels like a real assault weapon has foundered after US-based crowdfunding website Kickstarter rejected the project because it doesn't like guns.

Former British Royal Navy soldier Lee Bennett, who has previously built replica aeroplanes for Peter Jackson's company The Vintage Aviator, designed and made a prototype of the gun in just a few days, by pulling the guts out of a BB gun from Pete's Emporium and replacing them with a collection of off-the-shelf electronics.

When attached to a "first-person shooter" computer game, it lets the players aim and fire by pointing the weapon and pulling a trigger, rather than use a standard controller. When a shot is fired, the gun "recoils" .

The project was intended as a test project for Bennett's new venture, the Wellington Makerspace, where inventors, engineers and hobbyists are encouraged to work on projects in a shared hi-tech workshop in the capital, and potentially turn them into commercial products.

As a "proof of concept", Bennett applied to raise funding for his gun controller through Kickstarter, where investors pledge small sums of money in exchange for the promise of a finished product. Kickstarter payments are managed by the online retail giant Amazon.

Bennett enlisted a US-based partner, commissioned a slick promotional video, put together a pile of publicity material, and registered with Kickstarter.

To his surprise, in September last year his registration was declined. In an email, Kickstarter wrote: "Unfortunately, this project does not meet our guidelines as weapons are prohibited by Amazon and your product looks too similar to a real gun."

Bennett suspects sensitivities about gun crime were running high in the US at the time. His rejection email came two months after the Aurora cinema massacre, where James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 58 more in a movie theatre on the opening night of The Dark Knight.

In August last year, another crowd-funding website Indiegogo cancelled a fundraising effort by an American pro-gun group who planned to develop a fully functional firearm that could be made at home out of plastic, using a cheap 3-D printer.

All the same, Bennett was disappointed. "It never occurred to us that we were making a gun. We were making a game controller. You could have put the electronics on a banana and it would have still worked. We just wanted to make it like a rifle. In hindsight, we should have just done it with a bit of plywood."

Bennett is a gun enthusiast, and doesn't see anything wrong with individuals owning semi-automatic weapons, as long as they're properly trained, licensed and using them at a shooting range.

"Firing off guns, I find incredibly fun. But taking the wider view, they're for killing things, and that's not so fun."

Bennett pooh-poohs the idea that shoot-'em-up video games can be blamed for violence in the real world . "I don't think it's video games that make people go and shoot people in schools." Social considerations, such as whether someone feels powerless or has been bullied, are far more important factors.

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He's a keen player of military-style games such as Medal of Honor, but doesn't much like games such as Grand Theft Auto, which encourage players to attack police, or beat up a prostitute. "Some games are really nasty."

Bennett's not too bothered either by the impact exposing children to toy weapons. If children feel empowered and have good role models, playing with weaponry is neither here nor there. A goal of Wellington Makerspace is to provide opportunities for at-risk youth to learn new skills. "Last night we had 19 kids at Makerspace making water rockets and trebuchets [a medieval weapon used for flinging rocks at enemies]. The kids I come into contact with won't shoot anyone up."

Bennett is convinced there's a market for his realistic controller. When he went online to check his competition, he found "there are thousands of people who have glued their PlayStation controllers to plastic guns", a poor substitute for his device, which aims by actually waving the thing about.

He's not given up on his gun, but doesn't really care if it makes him any money. In April, Wellington Makerspace will be part of a "Makertorium" at Te Papa museum, where visitors will be encouraged to come along to fiddle with 3-D printers and robots, make their own rockets and find out more about the growing "maker" movement.

Bennett plans to demonstrate the gun controller there. If that sparks enough interest, he'll set up a workshop where people can come and make their own.

- Sunday Star Times

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