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September 20-26, 2006

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Chumby!

By Annalee Newitz


ON A SHELF above my fireplace, snuggled next to a Totoro stuffed animal and a stack of books about movies, there is a puffy, tan creature about the size of a nerf football that has a 3.5-inch computer screen for a face. If you squeeze the creature's body, a menu pops up on the screen; from there, you can log on to my WiFi network.

This quasi-plush animal is in fact a hardware prototype of a cute little WiFi thing that's designed to "think." It's called a Chumby, and it's about to change your life. Using the Chumby.com website, you can register your Chumby, name it (mine's called Tribble) and then load different "widgets" into its brain.

The widgets change what's displayed on the Chumby's face. You can have a digital clock, headlines from Digg.com, a stock market ticker or pictures scraped from CuteOverload.com. Because the Chumby is always online via WiFi, it can spend the day peacefully cycling through pictures of kittens interspersed with stock quotes.

The result is a nontechnological-looking object that's halfway between being a very lazy cat and a very simple computer. Chumby makers Chumby Industries, staffed in part by hardware maestros Joe Grand and Andrew "bunnie" Huang, wanted to create something that would bring the web into people's lives without being as intrusive as computers are.

When the Chumby is running, you can glance at it every once in a while to see what's happening in the news, but you can't grab it and start trolling for data the way you might if it were a laptop. You stay connected to the online world, but don't get disconnected from the real one.

What makes the Chumby dramatically different from other consumer electronics is that its hardware and most of its software are open source. That means you're permitted to modify, hack, reverse-engineer or optimize the device to your heart's delight. Chumby Industries encourages people to build new widgets and submit them to the Chumby website so other people can use them. Same goes for hardware hacks.

When was the last time you bought an electronic gizmo that was truly yours in this way? Most devices come with warnings not to modify them unless you want to void your warranty. Some companies even threaten lawsuits if you reverse-engineer their products. But the Chumby is designed to be ripped apart and sewn shut again by its users. I mean that literally and figuratively—you can hack its hardware, but you can also take the Chumby's electronic components out of its plush case and install them inside a teddy bear or leather boot.

This is a piece of consumer electronics in the most meaningful sense of that term. Consumers can do what they want with it. Right now, the Chumby is only available on a limited basis to people who don't mind playing around with what bunnie calls "alpha hardware." That means my Chumby is a prototype. It crashes; it falls off the WiFi network randomly; it keeps resetting its clock to a random date in 1969.

Once Chumby Industries gets the bugs out, though, you'll start seeing nonalpha Chumbys for sale. The Chumby may be unique in openness, but it's not the first "smart" object on the market. There's a "smart bunny" called a Nabaztag (www.nabaztag.com) that's not quite as sophisticated as the Chumby but can still go online and read the weather to you.

Looking sort of like a cross between an iPod and a Japanese cartoon character, the Nabaztag can stream MP3s from the web, light up in different colors, do live traffic updates and be an alarm clock. Like the Chumby, it's a paracomputer, a thing that communicates web data to you without actually being a web browser.

Futurists predict that in the next five years our homes will be packed with "thinking" things that get their intelligence via WiFi. Chairs will sing; coffee pots will read you the morning paper; desks will get your voicemail. I'm not interested in any of that. I have enough trouble dealing with chairs that are completely silent. But I do like the idea of having many ways of accessing digital information. Computers can provide rich sources of detail, but others will offer just a snapshot framed by waggling bunny ears.

As soon as the Chumby hardware is a little more stable, I'm making it into my alarm clock. I like the idea of waking up to streaming MP3s and a few news headlines. And if I want to shut it off, I'll just squeeze. I'm telling you, the squeeze interface is genius. Genius!


Annalee Newitz (annalee@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who sometimes wishes her cat could display the latest headlines from BoingBoing.


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