Chumby: Internet Access You Can Hug?

I love gadgets that make my life more convenient and more comfortable. Unfortunately, for every gadget like the humble AC to USB power adapter that I now use to charge the host of phones and electronic doo-dads in my travel bag, many more inventions and innovations suffer the fate of the dusty Eggstractor in my kitchen or the 3Com Audrey sitting in its box down in my basement.

I’ve been playing with a Chumby for several months, now, and I still can’t make up my mind whether it’s a valuable addition to a cutting-edge lifestyle or whether it would look nice next to the Eggstractor. Stripped to its fundamentals, the Chumby combines two separate functions: (1) a bedside alarm clock; and (2) a delivery outlet for Internet content that is pushed to you in real time. Oh, and the entire device is wrapped in a soft plush case that protects the Chumby from drops off a table—or lets you give hug the device like a stuffed animal. The alarm clock is allegedly the core reason that people purchase a Chumby, but the Internet connectivity is the only possible reason to pay $180 for something that would otherwise run about $10 at the local discount store.

The Chumby is an open source project, but normal users will probably never see, much less use, the Chumby’s hacking hooks. All user interaction with the Chumby is through applets selected by the user during the Chumby configuration process. Some applets (e.g., news feeds) are completely passive, while others (e.g., games) accept user input through Chumby’s touch screen or from its built-in accelerometer (a process somewhat akin to using a Nintendo Wii remote controller). In ordinary usage, there’s simply no direct access to the Linux kernel or to any user interface beyond Chumby applets and a simple digital control panel.

Setting up a Chumby involves two steps: configuring the Chumby itself and choosing content, something that must be done from a separate computer connected to the Internet. Firing up the Chumby itself couldn’t be simpler—plug its cord into the wall and let it find an open wifi network (preferably one that you control). The very first time the Chumby powers up, you’ll also be asked to calibrate the Chumby’s touch screen using your fingers. That’s it—for the hardware side.

Setting up content delivery to the Chumby is slightly more complicated. Unless all you want to see is the built-in clock application and random advertisements, you’ll first need to set up a free user account set up on the chumby.com website. Unlike some social networking sites, it’s reassuring that the Chumby company demands relatively little personal information to set up an account, and account creation takes only a few minutes. Once you have an account, you can browse the library of Chumby widgets, even trying many out in a “virtual Chumby” window on the web site.

Chumby content is organized by channels and widgets. While you can load as many widgets as you want onto the default channel, it can be frustrating and awkward to cycle through tens or even hundreds of applets to get to the one you’d like to use. Instead, Chumby’s programmers suggest setting up channels of content, each focused on a particular user or set of activities. For example, I created a channel that runs nothing but time and weather applets, another channel that runs nothing but game applets, and a third channel of random applets that I may occasionally use. Think of the process as setting up one or more television channels and the programs that show on each channel. There is no limit on the number of channels you can set up or the number of applets that can be added to a single channel.

A Chumby begins displaying content as soon as content is added through a chumby.com account. By default, applets display for a set amount of time, usually between 30-60 seconds. If the Chumby receives no input from a user during that time, the next applet will load. However, if a user starts to use an applet (typically through the touchscreen), the countdown timer stops. In practice, the Chumby spends most of its time as a running source of current information as it cycles through all the applets you’ve added to the active channel. However, while you can certainly program your Chumby to show stock prices, you can also get such diverse information as phases of the moon, top news headlines, the status of your eBay auctions, and the latest David Letterman Top 10 list (with full-motion video).

For the more advanced, there’s also a “beta test” control panel that supports additional functionality, particularly internet radio/streaming audio. Chumby.com has an active user forum where a combination of Chumby staff and power users discuss, dissect, and generally support features that haven’t yet made it into the official Chumby firmware. Further options are also available for the more adventurous. Chumby Industries offers published schematics, source code from the Linux kernel, and free applet developer’s resources.

The Chumby’s screen is bright enough to be clearly visible in a brightly lit room. At night, it sufficiently bright that you might can probably read by its light. For folks putting the Chumby near a bed, there’s also a “night brightness” setting that considerably dims the screen. A simple touch to the Chumby resets night brightness back to standard mode.

The Challenge of Unidirectional Data

The Chumby may be a bit frustrating to some because of its inherent design. Chumby distributes up-to-the-minute information, but that data travels on a one-way street. You can see the latest shopping special on Woot.com, but you can’t order it from the Chumby. You can see the status of your eBay auctions, but you can’t respond if you see that you’ve been outbid. And you certainly can’t respond to any e-mail messages that you might read through the Chumby’s e-mail viewer widget. None of these situations are problems, but they do highlight the bias we have learned towards computers and other devices that permit us to react to the information we’re seeing.

On the other hand, a Chumby is not a computer, and its use should be appropriate to its functionality. A Chumby works very well by a bed—or on an office desk—as a constantly updated source of current information. Chumby’s cute game widgets, which range from mazes to virtual bubblewrap, can be welcome, if short-term, distractions. And, in its role as a companion device, Chumby can easily alert you that it’s time to take affirmative action on a traditional computer or communication device.

It’s Cool, but Do I Need One?

One of the biggest challenges I faced when writing this review is identifying how I feel about the Chumby. It does exactly what it says it will do, but is that enough to justify its purchase price?

Although the Chumby receives Internet traffic in real time, the Chumby does not have a traditional web browser, and users are limited to the web content that is provided through various applets. Thinking of the approaching winter storm season, I had hoped to configure my Chumby to check the time, the weather, and local school closing announcements. However, building new widgets requires a bit of effort, and I was quickly persuaded that the challenge of creating a widget to show the status of my local school district was beyond my capabilities and tool set.

On the other hand, it’s been surprisingly handy to glance over at the Chumby to check the weather reports, even when I’m already at the computer in my home office. I’ve set my applets to change every 20-30 seconds, so I can see quite a bit of diverse content within a short amount of time. I can get the same information from a television news channel or by updating a news site window within an Internet browser session, but the Chumby permits me to keep my computer (and attention) focused on my main task. Instead of being a distraction, I suspect that the Chumby has actually increased my baseline productivity.

My children also love the Chumby. The Chumby’s soft, padded exterior, designed to protect everything but the screen from shock damage, also makes the device easy to hold. The simple flash-based game widgets that I’ve installed have been real hits (especially “Chumball”), so I occasionally have to shoo my boys out of the room when I’m working there. If the Chumby cost less, I would certainly consider configuring one for each of my kids.

So what’s my bottom line? Chumby is much more than an overpriced toy or novelty item. Its constantly growing library of widgets offers free access to a diverse range of information. Web developers or power users with flash development tools should be able to further enhance the value of their Chumby by creating custom widgets to display information of interest to them. And, of course, the alarm clock works just fine. However, I also believe that individuals will need to think about the personal benefit they’d receive by seeing current information just a bit sooner and on an automated basis. For some, this analysis will firmly tip the scales in favor of adding a Chumby to their gadget collection. For others, though, Chumby will be little more than an amusing distraction—at least, until they’re distracted by the next product by the makers of the Eggstractor.

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