New Beginnings for Chumby?


Product designers and engineers everywhere are trying to re-envision how the commonplace things that we use everyday can be updated for a digitally-connected world. Alarm Clocks, Radios, Picture Frames, Coffee Makers — you name an existing small appliance — and somebody, somewhere is trying to stick a Wi-Fi card into it.

Chumby Industries has developed a gadget that does all of the above (except for making coffee, sadly) — the eponymously-named “Chumby” — and is also open source, allowing enthusiasts to customize its workings. And now, the company seems to be making a move to concentrate on the software side of things, licensing the platform to a wide variety of consumer electronics manufacturers.

Clearly, über-connected, totally-hackable devices like the Chumby are catnip to tech junkies like me…but will the technology “have legs” when rolled out to a mass market in items like digital picture frames and set top boxes for televisions?

What is the Current “Chumby Device”?

Right now, a “Chumby device” is the device you see above — a sort of hybrid between an internet terminal, a digital picture frame, and a bean-bag alarm clock.

In essence, it is a stripped-down Linux computer: a 350 MHz ARM controller with 64 MB SDR SDRAM running at 117 MHz bus speed and 64 MB of NAND FLASH ROM — with 802.11g Wi-Fi, Stereo 2W speakers, headphone output, microphone input, and two USB 2.0 ports (not including a third one on the main board).

However unlike most Linux computers, a Chumby is designed in a way that encourages people to pick it up and play with it. It has a 320×240 3.5″ touchscreen, a sensor to pick up when you squeeze the Chumby, and 3-axis Accelerometer to detect the Chumby’s movement.

As of right now, there are around 1,200 widgets available for free download on the Chumby website. Content ranges from a variety of designs for a clock (“skins”), website feeds, useful news, weather, and information… to widgets that are really nothing more than advertisements or tutorials on using the Chumby.  Thankfully, the Chumby device also has the ability to stream music and data via its Flash Lite widgets.

Play with this “Virtual Chumby” to get the flavor (You can click on the screen to interact with it!):

What is it good for?

At its core, Chumby shines in a few contexts:

  • Alarm Clock on Steroids. I think that the current Chumby device is truly the “21st Century Alarm Clock” — it can put you to sleep with soothing ambient sounds and wake you up on a deeply-customizable schedule to everything from your favorite internet radio station to widgets with news, weather, etc.
  • Standalone Widget Player. Much of the Chumby’s “programming” is currently what I would call passive content (e.g., news, stock prices, sports scores).  But some widgets show off the device’s potential to greater advantage: Facebook and Twitter each have Chumby clients and, frankly, I think that the hardware combination of touchscreen, accelerometer, and microphone could enable enterprising developers to make some really awesome apps for the platform.
  • Media Streaming. Chumby is already a solid digital picture frame and also an excellent device for Pandora users. And when the developer community figures out how to leverage Chumby’s touchscreen to display and control other connected devices and appliances, then I think Chumby will be an especially attractive purchase for the desk or the bedside. Until the development of widgets catches up to the potential of the device, it will probably be outshined by other portable touchscreen devices such as the iPhone or iPod Touch. The iPod Touch if docked in a small stereo by the bedside would be probably a richer (albeit less squeezable) alternative — and certainly not limited to playing only Flash-Lite plug-ins.  The Chumby comes with speakers included and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of their sound.  And, unlike the iPod Touch, I think that the Chumby’s form is better suited for certain applications (like using it as a clock or a digital picture frame, for example).
  • Speaking of iPods It can also charge and playback music from most of them. Very convenient!

Next Up — The Future of Chumby!