Chumby: aka mini computer that doesn't talk like a computer

Lots of my ideas for hardware that I enjoy kicking around (that is to say, my favorite ideas) involve having some portion of the computing experience somewhere other than your computer. Or at least some data that is generally only found on your computer somewhere else. More on that later. As I drove home today, I was thinking that really the answer will lie in little boxes with small CPUs that run Linux. You can get a router to run Linux and indeed, most routers these days (I believe) are just chips running Linux and programming to, umm... route (rout?). Previously, I had thought that you could toss a PocketPC into a myriad of devices. But these are expensive and, I'll be honest, somewhat slow, and completely unpopular. But a Linux "mini-computer," if you will, would cost what? $100 for the hardware? Well, apparently, for the hardware and some leather (and some profit), it's $179 when it goes on sale this fall. (To be fair to my estimate, there are a few extras I wasn't counting on and I expected a lower-powered processor.) It's a little computer, memory, 2 USB ports, Wi-Fi, touchscreen, speakers & headphone jack, microphone, accelerometer (it knows when you chuck it across the room) and a few other things I don't know about ("Bend" Switch?). It's called a Chumby. I imagine that is supposed to be a clever spin off "chum" but it sounds a bit silly to me. They had to name it something, I suppose. Hack Chumby is clearly aiming at custom developers too - people to hack it and make it do other things. From the main page, you see 2 links (ok, you see lots, but 2 relevant): "Developers" in the main menu and "Source Code" along the bottom. Wait a tic: "source code" - yup the source code that the Chumby runs on. This is like the anti-iPhone (iPhones, at first, were being hacked to be unlocked and Apple very tight and clearly wanted them locked and not open to developers). The first page under developers? "Welcome developers." They also have a wiki for developers that is, I'd say, better than Facebook's developer wiki - and Facebook is working hard to get developers (their lives depend on it). Oh yeah, there is also "completely hackable" listed as a feature. And remember: this is before the thing is even out the door to people. Usually the cycle is: release product, people hack it, decide you [company] like people hacking it, slowly create the infrastructure to support the hackers (and often be slow and not as good as what the hackers are already doing). These guys seem to have learned from iRobot / Roomba. Applications Am I getting ahead of myself? What's the big idea of having a computer that runs Linux? So what? Chumby (the company) itself suggests a few things that they built already (and a few suggestions for others to build). They show some flash games, an eBay widget (monitor an auction from somewhere other than the computer - presumably bid on it too). Also weather. Weather is interesting to me. I often think weather belongs just about anywhere other than the computer. Weather belongs in places other than your computer. I have tried a few times (not hard enough clearly) to get weather into my TV (via Windows Media Center). But that's not an ideal place for it (and I could have flipped to the Weather Channel and waited out the 10 minutes of ads and the weather in Austrilia, Rome, and Ecuador in order to get to see my local weather report). I have a little Oregon Scientific weather station that gives me temperature, humidity, and forecast. Pretty sweet - and even hooks to remote sensors (e.g. it gives me the temperature inside and outside). But the forecast is based on it's reading and if I have all its weather sensors inside my house, as I currently do, what's the forecast based on (40% chance of showers in the kitchen)? Further: even if I had a few sensors outside is some little box going to deliver better weather guesses (and let's face it: we humans are still just guessing) than Accuweather or the Weather Network with its 100-year weather history, fancy weather models, and hordes of mystic shamans who worship the sun meterologists? So why can't I get that data from my computer to another device. Preferably one that I don't have to boot up and wait for. Preferably one that with pretty color graphics and maybe even a satellite map. Now we're talking. (BTW: the link isn't my weather station exactly: mine is that one [same features and screen] but is red, has a Ferrari logo and the alarm has the sound of an F1 car revving.) But weather is a bit of a piddly example: we can get that information already. Chumby's eBay widget is better: an eBay auction is information that I otherwise would only have in my computer (or on my TV, again via Windows Media Center). Past the Chumby I think that it will make a difference if we can incorporate Chumby-like hardware in devices we already have. The so-called "smart home" stuff. (Maybe leave the accelerometer out of them - if my fridge falls over I won't need an accelerometer to notify me: I'll hear the crash. But I'm getting ahead of myself.) The fridge is usually my first thought, probably because there is so much potential data in my fridge. Each item has some nutritional information. I also have some inventory (2 jar of pickles, 1 bottle of Tabasco, 2 bottles of ketchup... "Honey, why 2 bottles of ketchup? Seriously."). There is also history: when we are low on Tabasco, we buy more (hypothetically, one may be low if the arm of the fridge shelf on which Tabasco is stored breaks and the bottle slides off and hits the tile floor and shatters - with pepper sauce going everywhere and, while cleaning it up, you can feel it burning your nose and passer-bys walking in cough as they inhale the heat - oh, and let's say that's a large bottle of Tabasco, not the usual small bottle that most people have - hypothetically).

  • Buying history + current inventory = base shopping list (better than I could make)
  • Current inventory + date it entered = email or SMS alert: "Make burgers (buy buns on your way home - you only have 1) and use the last ketchup that expires on Friday."
  • Current inventory + date it entered = email or SMS alert: "You didn't finish the ketchup, toss it - it expired yesterday. Idiot." (yes, in my utopia computers insult me.)
  • Nutritional information + Current inventory - inventory removed for cooking = nutritional information of meal & subsequent leftovers (weighed for serving calculation)

*goes to get a snack* What... munch, munch... else? I'm sure each appliance (and possibly a few pieces of furniture) would benefit from having a non-computer computer embedded in them. Back to reality (reality as Fall 07) But what about the Chumby? Well, maybe a Chumby shows a picture that my friend just took on their cellphone and uploaded wirelessly. That's pretty easy - I could probably build that on day 1 that they come out. Maybe the Chumby wakes me with the latest news (that I care about: from preferences stored somewhere). How about showing the current night sky identifying constellations, etc.. How about iPhone-Cingular-style visual voicemail for my home phone (or cell or combined)? It seems to me that there is probably at least 1 game-changer to be had with this device. Some piece/type of information that we could get that we currently don't because we don't have the right interface: and a computer that isn't a computer might be the right interface. (E.g.: we didn't know we wanted blogs until we had the internet - as opposed to email: we knew we wanted email: it was just the internet version of faxes/letters/notes/etc..) The only thing I wish the Chumby had is the Nabaztag lights - I really want to experiment with more subtle ways of communicating data from a computer. Oh, and a rechargeable battery that lasts say... a week (so I can move it around and just put it on its base station weekly). Oh, and a camera - preferably video (how'd they forget this?). Side note on Roomba: Check the ConnectR: read bullet #1: "Participate in family moments even though you're working late." Right, cuz a little red robot feels the same as having Dad at home. Also, immediately above that: "seeing, hearing and interacting with them in their home as if you were there in person."

Wednesday, October 17, 2007, 12:00 AM

tagged: ambientinterfaces, chumby, computersthatarent, nabaztag, convergence