We invented the chumby because we, like most people we know and especially like most younger people we know, have at least two often-incompatible lives. We have our real life: being with our family, friends and co-workers; doing activities; running errands; making dinner; enjoying our morning coffee while looking out the window; brushing our teeth; scolding the dog. We also, and increasingly, have our Net life: answering email; posting to our blogs; sharing digital photos or the latest joke; finding out if the Padres blew it in the ninth-inning (do we even have to wonder?); seeing who’s IM’ing us; scanning for the latest buzz on digg or Slashdot; trying to know in advance if it’s going to rain tomorrow; discovering how much traffic there is on the way to work; and just letting Web whimsy wash over us.
Lacking time travel or self-cloning (Chumby Industries’ next product ideas!), these two lives are somewhat hard to reconcile. Attention spent on one is attention not accorded the other. I like my real life, so I’m trying hard not to give that short-shrift. But my Net life is really interesting too, and getting better all the time – and my friends and family are sometimes there too. But, on the other hand, there’s a “Kodak moment” happening right now with my kids in my yard and I’m missing it because I’m working on a blog post. But, on the third hand, bunnie Huang just messaged me with a cool idea for Chumby and is dying to know what I think about it – and I don’t want to wait until tomorrow to discuss it with him. I’m sure that those of you who are reading this post presumably know exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t need to “get a life,” I have too many already. I just need to reconcile, to “synch,” them better.
We’re hoping that the chumby will help reconcile real and Net lives for some people. We designed the chumby for all that Net life stuff that’s important, but not so important that you need to be fully-focused on your computer or hyper-thumbing your cellphone. It’s an attempt to try to integrate a lot of that Net life stuff into your real life. It’s meant to be passive. It’s “sort of” what’s going on in your Net life, with the occasional alert for when you do need to put your real life on hold and engage completely with your Net life (“She posted that about me?!?!?”). But, by occasionally providing the comfort of some passive and “continuous partial attention” to your Net life, it’s what allows you to reengage more fully with your real life. I don’t want to have to hear again, “Daddy, why are you still tippy-tapping on your computer? The puppet show is about to start!” Frankly, I don’t know if it will really accomplish this goal or not (maybe I’ll now be staring at my chumby in the living room and still missing the puppet show), but it’s an attempt.
So, think of it this way. If you were typing away on your computer and someone in the house let out a scream, you’d leap up from your chair and run to find out what was happening (please say that you would!). But, assuming you’re in your real life, how can your Net life “scream” for attention? Or say you’re happily typing away on your laptop, enjoying your Net life, while your kids are playing nearby — you’re focused on your Net life but still enjoying a happy glow from your real life. Think of the chumby as the way your Net life can sometimes get your attention from your real life and the way you can bask in the happy glow of your Net life while living in your real life.
We invented the chumby because we’re not familiar with any other product that finds the right balance in providing passive continuous partial attention between our real and Net lives. Computers, Net-connected gaming machines, and cellphones essentially require our full attention when we’re using them. They’re anything but passive. And, as we all know, they can be downright anti-social. You must think, decide, pull down information you want to see, digest it, decide what to do next. This takes work, it takes continuous focused attention. You are ignoring other people around you when you interact with these devices — wake up, people, are you too far gone to see this! :^). Other attempts we’ve seen at passive or “ambient” information devices seem to us to be lacking the level of depth and granularity of information we need from our Net lives. They quickly fail to capture any of our attention, not even some of it, and they can’t be easily modified to serve anything other than the specific limited purpose for which they were designed. They seem to us to have limited value and limited attention “shelf life.” But for those of you designing and selling these devices: we’re all on the same team, we have a lot in common, we all are going after the same problem, and let’s “let a thousand flowers bloom” in trying to solve it. Let’s find better ways to integrate our two lives!
Some people on blogs and blog comments have discussed the chumby relative to some other device and, based upon what they think they know about the chumby, have found it lacking. Well, okay, first I encourage them to visit the Chumby Industries site where they can get the facts, like that it is, in fact, Linux-based and it is a plug-powered, not mobile, device. The skeptics observe that the chumby can’t compare in many ways to a laptop, a PDA, a cellphone or a portable game player. Some of these other devices can do, or can do better, a lot of things that the chumby can’t do at all or can’t do very well. To be sure, if you were willing to scatter wifi-enabled laptops around your house, you really could hands-down outperform a group of similarly-placed chumbys. But I don’t know too many people who can afford to do this or who would want to move into the Uber-Geek Hall of Fame by doing so. Do you really want a laptop whirring away on your nightstand, right by your head, all night long? Will your significant other really let you get away with it? And when your laptop sits next to your sofa, what about when guests inadvertantly spill their drinks into the keyboard?
The chumby is designed to blend in with your life (both of them), your personal style, and to fit in with your surroundings. Your chumbys shouldn’t seem out of place in a bedroom, a kitchen, a living room, or even a bathroom — or anywhere else in your house. And if you don’t like the look of a chumby for where you’d like to put one, we’ve made it easy for you (hopefully for a whole cottage industry!) to change the look of your chumby so that it does look the way you want it to.
Lastly, we’re hoping that people find ways to enable the chumby to make all of their other devices even better and to do things these other devices can’t do very well. For example it’s a great way to share photos from your cellphone: email/MMS shots from your camera phone to a photo-sharing site (we’re doing this on Flickr right now), and have your chumby constantly pull down and display your photos from your account. This simple process (we’re making it even simpler) takes just a few moments, so your friends can see themselves on your chumby while the party’s going on! And because your chumby can pull photo feeds from multiple accounts, everyone’s photos from the party can all be shared on one chumby in real time. It’s tremendously entertaining.
I’ll be writing more about how the chumby will hopefully fit into your life(s) and play nice with your other stuff soon.
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.