chumby–My Inside Perspective

So, the cat is out of the bag, and I’m finally able to talk about a project that I have had the priviledge of working on for the past several months. I have been working on the chumby, an inexpensive (sub-$150) Wi-Fi enabled content delivery device that is designed to be used around the home. From the hacker’s perspective, chumby is basically a linux client that runs a Flash player and streams content from the “Chumby network”, our content management service. In my mind, these were the goals of the chumby design:

  • simple. A non-hacker user familiar with computers–for example, a typical teenager–should be able to set up and use a chumby. In addition to a lot of thought put into the UI, the chumby network’s ability to deliver drag-and-drop content via Flash widgets is the tehnological cornerstone for chumby’s simplicity. It is this simplicity that differentiates chumby from general purpose devices such as PDAs and laptops.
  • fun. This is a device whose core consumer market is not the gadget fanatic. It needs to be accessible to everyone, so we are trying to take the industrial design in a direction that we like to call the “anti-iPod”.
  • deep. A fatal flaw in many “simple” products is that they are too shallow, and miss key features that would make them useful. Products like the Civa pictureframe, the Ambient Orb, and the Nabaztag rabbit are examples of devices that are too one-dimensional and lack depth. And this leads us up to the most important goal for me–
  • yours. The chumby is architected to be as open as possible to anybody who wants to hack it. In the design of the system, we consider not only open source software hackers, but also hardware hackers and artists and “crafters”–e.g., people who are equally skilled in their ability and passion to do non-computer things, such as metalworking, sewing, carpentry, etc.

Thus, there are two messages about the chumby, neither of which are fundamentally exclusive. One is that Chumby will appeal to the new generation of always-on, always-connected people who use myspace, blogs, and rely on IM to keep in touch (hence the picture of the teenage girl on the chumby corporate website using a chumby). The other is that Chumby will appeal to hackers, who have an insatiable desire to extend, modify, customize, and abuse consumer products to do things they weren’t intended to do. I am hoping that these two worlds will develop a synergy that enables chumby to do things we never imagined.

The real key here is enabling hackers to break out of the realm of point-solution hacks on unsupportable hardware and into the realm of something you can share with hopefully just about anyone. My boss likes to cite the example of a hack where someone adds a blood pressure cuff to chumby, and gives it to their grandmother. Now you can check on grandma’s health, and she can watch pictures of her grandchildren while she gets her bloodpressure taken. Now imagine this scenario, but with a WRT-54G router instead of a chumby. Sure, you can add a blood pressure cuff to a WRT-54G as well (they are architecturally quite similar in fact), but try to explain to grandma how to set it up and use it. In other words, hackers can leverage the effort we spent into making chumby usable to help make their hacks more usable and more palatable to others.

So, Chumby is making the source code, schematics, board layouts, bill of materials, flat patterns and 3-D CAD databases of our plastic pieces available for you to use. You can find them all at the chumby developer site (the link may be down right now due to the stress on our servers from being on digg, engadget, and other popular websites). Working on chumby is very personally exciting to me, because not only am I presented with the opportunity to build a product that helps people improve their lives in some small way, there is also a chance for me to enable you to build hacks on this platform, and you can leverage our (hopefully) success.

Here is a simple example of what I mean. I heard from someone this weekend at FOO camp (I forget who already–if you are reading, please refresh my memory!) that they are unhappy that the thermostat in their home is so far away from the place where they actually want to have thermoregulation. Thus, a weekend project for him would be to hack a chumby and add a temperature sensor. Since the chumby platform already has Wi-Fi built into it, the amount of hardware grunge work he has to do is minimal–he just needs two chumbys, one with a temperature sensor, and one with an interface to the thermostat, both enabled with the hacker sensor package that I built (more on that later). Furthermore, the device he builds will not only help keep his livingroom at the right temperature, it can also tell him the latest news and help him track his favorite TV shows. The coup de grace for all of this is that he is also free to publish his modifications and even resell modified chumbys with this capability so that others can enjoy the benefits of his work, and he can make some profit off of his initiative. And on a lighter note, since the housing itself is made out of fabric, he has the opportunity to redo the housing so that it matches the livingroom decor, keeping his spouse happy because there is not yet another odd hack with ugly cords everywhere sitting in the livingroom.

And of course, I want to make clear that I’m not the only guy behind Chumby–I am just the hardware lead designer, and I do the linux kernel stuff too (which is something new for me, but it was a lot of fun learning the insides of linux from boot to halt). There’s a team of talented, hard-working people who are also a lot of fun to work with.

12 Responses to “chumby–My Inside Perspective”

  1. […] There are a bunch of other reasons why we invented the chumby, getting more into our desire for open-ended, hackable products. But bunnie has already covered some of that and we’ll be discussing it in other posts. […]

  2. […] Update: Here’s some inside info on the Chumby from one of it’s developers. Also, after I posted this, I made a perhaps idiosyncratic connection between Chumby and an earlier cute information appliance, 3com’s ill-fated Audrey. […]

  3. Angela says:

    I think we need to remember that the always-on generation extends to people in their thirties, if not older. I read a lot of things about “digital natives” and “millenials” but it doesn’t sit well with me. I had my first computer at 11 – a Commodore 64 with a tape drive. I am always on. I had a net life before today’s 15 year olds were born (eek!). I read some stats about the average age of online gamers being about 34. I think Generation X has contributed a lot to tech creativity…so I’m pretty sure the chumby will appeal to a big group besides hackers and teens who have been waiting (a long time!) for colourful, appealing, tactile gadgets. Keep up the great work!

  4. […] Some interesting links: Why the chumby was invented A creators inside perspective Home page What is the chumby Explore posts in the same categories: fun, stumbles […]

  5. […] More on the birth of Chumby, including the geeky details and backstory at and an inside perspective from Bunnie Huang. Filed under: links Comments: […]

  6. Paul says:

    Is chumby dead. There blog is not been updated in almost a month and the forum has had no responses in almost a week.

  7. Andry says:

    Autor, Respect!

  8. Name Alexey says:

    !!! It is class to itself

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  12. Awesome! looking forward to more entries from you..