Open Source Alarm Clock Transcends the Nightstand

by Ostatic Staff - Nov. 02, 2008

Sam has recently written a few excellent posts about open source software being used in unusual ways. He's also covered a few open source hardware projects.

Though it may not be as epically geek as the NetBSD toaster, there is a certain appeal to Chumby, the Linux alarm clock. The hardware and software are open and hackable, for the hands-on type.

For the rest of the population, it's still an interesting and functional little device.

At its most basic, Chumby is an alarm clock roughly the size and shape of a large potato. It houses a 350 MHz ARM9 controller, 64 MB of of SDR SDRAM, 64 MB NAND FLASH ROM, and a 3.5 inch LCD touch screen. There are stereo speakers (these are small, so don't expect anywhere near concert hall quality sound), as well as headphone and microphone jacks, and three USB ports (two are external). It connects to a local network (and ultimately Chumby servers) wirelessly. It seems like standard embedded device hardware at first glance.

It's a bit more interesting than that. Chumby also has a squeeze sensor (which seems more accurately described as a toggle switch) and a three axis accelerometer. The hardware, then, is not only aware of touch screen input, but of movement and orientation.

The downside for hardware hackers is that tearing into a Chumby and physically altering the hardware will void the warranty. The good news? Chumby Industries has made the hardware schematics available to make planning alterations easier. Viewing the schematics requires registering on Chumby's site and agreeing to the HDK license. However, the wiki gives a decent overview of the hardware hacking possibilities for those casually tossing the idea around.

Chumby runs a customized Linux distribution, and there are a few ways software developers can have some fun with Chumby from recompiling the kernel for added peripheral support to widget development (though Adobe Flash Lite 3.0 is used to deliver/develop widgets, Chumby has a list of open source Flash tools useful in widget development). And of course, since Chumby is open, there are projects in the works to offer alternative ways to interact with and control the device.

Even those without the inclination to hack circuitry or software can alter Chumby. The hardware is easily removed from the potato-esque casing and craftier users have put Chumby into a number of creative casings.

So what about the non-hacker types? Or those (like me) who got a Chumby with the intention of making the software do all sorts of unintended things only to discover that there are all these great ideas, and absolutely no time to bring them to light? One of the Chumby's strongest features is that it's actually useful (or at least entertaining) -- right out of the box, regardless of hacking abilities and intentions.

Chumby connects via wireless to a network and ultimately to An account on the Chumby website allows you to activate the Chumby and configure it with channels that can be customized with a number of widgets (ranging from email viewers and feed readers to server monitors and games). Some widgets are sponsored and developed by larger companies (CBS is a Chumby partner), but a large number are submitted by individual developers. There isn't a subscription service for the Chumby network or limit on the channels and widgets displayed on the device, and firmware and control panel updates are all pushed through the network free of charge. Chumby is supporting the network currently by displaying partner ads randomly inserted between "chosen" widgets. I've been using this service for over a year, and haven't found this bothersome. None of the advertising widgets ever have sound enabled by default, and can be skipped over to get to any point in the channel via the control panel.

The Control Panel is where the alarm, music, night mode, and system tools reside. Customized alarms can be created that allow for channel changes at certain times, or different sound sources play at different intervals. Music can be played from older iPod devices (the Touch and iPhone are not supported, nor is any music with DRM encryption) and flash drives. Shoutcast, Pandora, customized streams, and a number of internet radio and podcast delivery services are available through the Chumby music panel as well. System tools available allow for clean shutdown and rebooting of the Chumby, access to network information (such as MAC address, IP, and wifi signal strength). This is the best place to start to get "under the Chumby's hood" -- here you can browse the filesystem and enable SSH to run terminal commands on your Chumby from your desktop.

Chumby is an unusual open source device, but it's struck a nice balance. The fact that it's open and hackable could mean everything to one user, and be the major reason they purchase it. It could be completely inconsequential (a friend with no interest in open source spotted my Chumby, and was so taken with the widgets and presentation that her husband got her one for her birthday). This is really how it should be. It's there for opening up and altering if that's your interest. If it isn't, it carries on doing what you purchased it to do, and what's powering it never requires further thought.