The Charming Chumby

This high-tech lump runs lots of programs--103 of which are alarm clocks

3 min read

The Chumby breaks all the cool-gizmo-for-early-adopters rules. And I love it.

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on IEEE SPECTRUM’S HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE 2008

The US $180 gadget, from Chumby Industries, is what’s called an ambient device, which means you don’t push keys to get information. Instead its touch screen gives you the information automatically via ”widgets”—little bits of JavaScript that display stock information, webcams, weather reports, or funny photos. If you happen to be watching, great; if not, the device cycles onto something else.

And here’s where the Chumby starts breaking the rules. Typical early-adopter products scream high-tech. They shine, they reflect; they are black and silver, smooth and stylized. A Chumby looks like a beanbag packed in a burlap sack. My review unit was a particularly unhip yellowish beige, which the company has dubbed ”latte.” I was not impressed, but my 9- and 13-year-old kids had a different reaction. They ripped it out of my hands before I could even find the ”on” button.

Remember Teletubbies? Adults were baffled by their appeal, yet they transfixed a generation of toddlers. The Chumby is a Teletubby for an older set.

Out of the box—I mean the bag—the Chumby is a really nice alarm clock, iPod dock, and Internet radio player with 21 preset stations. To do more involves logging onto and choosing from among the hundreds of widgets there. Your selections migrate in minutes down to the Chumby via its built-in Wi-Fi. There is no subscription fee; instead, the business is financed by the occasional advertisement.

Initially, I wasn’t sure what to do. My kids knew, however. First, name it (they settled on Coco). Next, games! The Chumby has an accelerometer, so Coco senses when she’s being tilted and turned. Even a simple game like Breakout can be addictive.

When I got my hands back on Coco, I started by adding webcams—of the Eiffel Tower, Times Square, the pandas at the San Diego Zoo, the Alaskan coastline from a Princess cruise ship, and more. I also put on The New York Times, CBS News, The Huffington Post, ”60 Minutes,” Yahoo’s most-searched terms, and David Letterman’s Top Ten list. My kids piled on MyToons, SpongeBob, and YouTube videos.

It took me a while to master the Chumby’s quirks. The first time I used it as an alarm clock I selected a clock widget, set that to stay on (rather than cycle to the next widget), set the display to ”dim,” then (finally!) set the alarm. When I woke up, bright morning sunlight washed out the display, so I couldn’t see the time, find the alarm’s ”off” button, or get back to the display controller. I finally unplugged it. Only later did I notice a button labeled ”night.” Hmmm. In one step it stopped cycling widgets, dimmed the screen, and became a simple digital clock display.

Such guesswork might sound annoying, but I found myself enjoying the process, as if Coco were a pet and I were teaching her new tricks. New widgets arrive on the Chumby Web site every day. And now when my alarm goes off and I touch the screen, she jumps to the day’s weather forecast.

The Chumby runs Linux; its hardware and software are completely hackable, and creating a widget takes nothing more than a bit of Flash programming. Matt Johnston, a customer service representative for the company, says there’s lots of talk in user forums about using the Chumby as a baby monitor: ”That won’t be difficult and will likely happen soon.”

But there are plenty of clocks right now. When I checked in early July, 103 were available—a backward clock, a binary clock, a bar-code clock, a Death Star clock, a Pong clock, a fuzzy logic clock (7:11 is ”a quarter after seven”), a British fuzzy version (”quarter past seven”), and virtual Nixie clocks.

My Silicon Valley friends—folks who pride themselves on being the first to own a $1000 Sonos sound system or a $24 000 Toyota Prius—are not impressed. ”Two hundred bucks for an alarm clock?” they say. ”I’ll wait for the next generation.”

But a Chumby’s first generation is also its next generation. Coco learns new tricks every day. —Tekla S. Perry

To Probe Further

For more articles and special features, go to IEEE SPECTRUM’S HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE 2008

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