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Chumby: The Beanbag Computer

I seem to be on some secret marketing list of people who paid off their cars recently. Chumby Industries claims they offered me the opportunity to buy a Chumby because I signed up to be notified when the Chumby would be available to purchase before the general release, but I know better. With car money burning holes in my bank account I purchased a Chumby (in stylish Steve Jobs black) for $179.95.

Chumby 101 — So what the heck is a Chumby, anyway? Take a beanbag about the size of a grapefruit and stuff it with a 3.5″ color LCD touch screen, a 350 MHz CPU, 128 MB of memory, Wi-Fi, a motion sensor, a squeeze sensor, two USB ports, a pair of speakers (and headphone jack) and you have a Chumby.

Sure, sure, but what does it do? The Chumby is a dedicated widget machine. It loops through widgets you’ve selected from the Chumby Web site. Each widget plays for a configurable amount of time, and, just like Dashboard widgets in Mac OS X, they can do many things. Widgets for weather, RSS feeds, webcams, Twitter, clocks, calendars, and Magic 8 balls are already available, and more are being developed all the time.

Access to the Chumby’s widget library and future software updates are free. They’re paid for via the occasional advertising widget that shows up randomly on the Chumby. To date, I think I’ve had only a handful of ads show up each day. All have been Flash-based movies, but the movies do not play automatically. You have to hit the play button to start them.

But widget playing is just part of what the Chumby can do. It can also act as a passable iPod dock, charging your iPod and playing music from playlists through its built-in speakers or headphone jack. It’s even a dual-alarm clock, making it appropriate for the bedroom.

Chumby Usage — When your Chumby arrives, the first thing to do after removing it from its burlap bag packaging (perfect for carrying the Chumby around, and environmentally appealing as well) is select the appropriate charm to attach to it. Why? Don’t ask me. It comes with several, and for my black Chumby I went with the flame charm.

Next you turn the Chumby on and join it to a Wi-Fi network. Thankfully, it supports both WEP and WPA. At work I joined it to a 40-bit WEP access point (not our official company one, which requires more extensive authentication than the Chumby supports.) I did have a problem initially connecting to the WEP access point as it wanted the password in hex instead of ASCII. Luckily, I found a Web page that could convert the password. At home I joined it to my WPA-protected network, which was significantly easier, since the Chumby accepted ASCII input for that password.

Once you have network access, you have to activate your Chumby. This involves creating a free account on the Chumby Web site and linking your Chumby – identified by duplicating a graphical onscreen pattern – to the account.

After activating the Chumby you can add widgets. The Chumby uses “channels” to decide which widgets to play. You can have several channels, each with different widgets. I currently have three channels, through which I randomly cycle throughout the day. I only need to know the San Diego pandas are OK via their PandaCam so many times before I change channels and check in on PolarBearCam. In addition to webcams, I use the Chumby at work to keep track of Twitter, the TidBITS RSS feed, stock quotes, and the latest pictures from I
Can Haz Cheezburger
and Cute Overload.

To use a Chumby with an iPod, just connect the iPod via a USB cable. Your playlists from the iPod appear on the Chumby’s screen, and you can play one or more playlists in random or sequential order while the widgets display. Unfortunately, the Chumby’s iPod integration needs a few improvements. If a widget plays a Flash-based video with sound, the Chumby isn’t smart enough to pause the iPod, instead merging the sound from the two. Also, pausing the iPod, as I need to do at work when I receive a phone call, is a three-step process: hit the squeeze sensor, tap the Music control, then tap Pause. The Chumby should pause the iPod as soon as the squeeze sensor is activated. I’d also like an option for song titles to be overlaid on the current
widget for a few seconds every time the song changes, and it would be nice to be able to enter star ratings for songs.

Hack the Chumby — But the real reason I wanted a Chumby was for hacking, and enjoying the results of everyone else’s hacks. Everything about the Chumby is open. In a flashback to the days when Steve Wozniak gave away the schematics of his early Apple hardware designs, the schematics of the Chumby are available online. The software is all covered by the GNU Public License (GPL). Chumby Industries even encourages modifying your bean bag (you can see some of the things people have done on Flickr). Of course there are plenty of warnings about ripping open
the bean bag violating the warranty, but that does not stop them from providing instructions on how to do it!

The biggest disappointment I have in the Chumby is the choice of Flash as the development environment for widgets. Most widget systems use JavaScript instead, as does Apple’s Dashboard. I’d like to take a stab at writing a Chumby widget since widgets can be submitted to Chumby for everyone to use or played from a USB flash drive for personal enjoyment. But Flash seems expensive for a hobbyist developer – Adobe’s Flash development package lists for $699. There are some open source development systems like haXe, but my brief overview didn’t reveal if they could work with the sample
that Chumby provides.

With all the Chumby’s openness, I’m hoping the annoyances I mentioned, including support for widgets written in JavaScript, will eventually be fixed. Perhaps Chumby Industries will do it, but if not, maybe we’ll see the solution from some hacker with an itch to scratch.

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