The birth of Chumby

Last night, we had our first ever “product launch” at FOO camp. (Joshua Schachter says he almost showed at the first FOO in 2003, but wasn’t quite ready, and released it a few weeks later.) We normally try to focus on pre-commercial technology at FOO, since by the time there are lots of startups, you’re much further from the cutting edge. However, there are so many interesting aspects to the Chumby that we were excited to get behind it, and invite a whole bunch of the chumby team to Foo for the launch:

  1. Web 2.0 meets low-end consumer devices. Chumby is a kind of web-enabled wifi clock radio, with user-generated konfabulator-style info-widgets. There is an initial set of widgets, but the goal is for the community to extend the set. The value of the device is in the service of delivering new net-connected widgets, not in the hardware, or even the software.
  2. Open source hardware. This is a major emergent theme at FOO. (Remember that we don’t organize the program around concepts so much as we organize it around people. We find cool people, and they tell us what they’re doing, often surprising us by the things they do that we didn’t know about.) As there’s more Make: style hardware hacking, there’s a need for new tools for sharing the details of projects, for thinking through licenses, and the like. (A great example of FOO cross-fertilization: Colin Cross, also at FOO, is working on a linux-powered open source hardware mobile phone, the TuxPhone (project coming soon on SourceForge.) He was excited to meet the Chumby folks to pick their brains about their license.)
  3. Open source software. In a session on forecasting, Paul Saffo remarked on the importance of paying attention to anomalies. The example he gave was a highway road sign that stated “Leaving emergency road side phone service area.” This shift from communications being the exception to communications being the norm alerted him to the idea that communications, not processors, would be the driving force of technology in the 90’s. So I think it’s fascinating that Chumby puts a sticker on the back noting that all the software is open source except flash, which they use for some functions.
  4. Soft hacking, aka Craft:. Chumby CEO Steve Tomlin remarked that Chumby is a device that “you can hack with a seam ripper.” Unlike most other consumer electronic devices, it comes with a bean-bag style case (complete with various kinds of sensors so that squeezes and bumps control activity) that can be modded with a sewing machine. Want a hello-kitty version? It’s up to you.
  5. They wanted to see how a hacker audience would respond. The device is designed to be hackable on every level, so this is a great alpha group for seeing where a hacker community will take a device like this, as well as whether or not they respond. The prototypes are still under development, and the people at FOO who’ve gotten their hands on them thus become co-developers of the product before manufacturing goes to scale.
  6. The idea was born at FOO. Key members of the Chumby team met at previous FOO Camps, and the idea was an outgrowth of the ferment we encourage here. So it’s a great proof point of what we’re trying to accomplish: pack enough smart people into a compact space that they create enough heat that ideas boil over.

Christine Herron gives a great summary of the product launch. The Chumby site has lots more info.