Chumby: Digital picture frame for parents and much more

I want to get my parents a digital picture frame. But at the moment I cannot. That’s because I don’t want my somewhat less-technical parents to have to fiddle with memory cards, choosing and transferring photographs or running Vista.

My ideal digital picture frame for them would be one sitting in a living room or a bedroom with new photos to delight my parents every so often.

Such a device would have to be:

  • Wi-Fi capable – My parents have a wireless router and there is no point for a picture frame to sit next to the computer
  • Able to pull content from private online photo account, such as Flickr or PicasaWeb, to which our extended family could push photos
  • No ongoing monthly costs – subscription would make it a gift that keeps taking, rather than giving
  • Controllable over the internet
  • Ideally with speakers and/or some way to show video to be more future proof

I have been on a lookout for such a device for more than a year and had no luck. Obviously, digital picture frames are still a personal purchase rather than a gift one. Or maybe less technical parents is a smaller niche than I imagine.

But I have hope. Yesterday, I have received a small package that contained a Chumby! Chumby is not a digital picture frame. It is quite small (I think the website’s image is real-size). But it has features that make up for its size.

It has Wi-Fi access, including password-protected; it has no monthly costs; it is configured over the internet and comes with speakers. It also has touch sensitive screen, microphone and accelerometer (like in Wii controller).

Notice I did not say anything about pictures or videos. That’s because Chumby is a more generic device. It allows to choose what widgets run on it and a widget is a program written in Flash, the same environment that allows us to watch Flickr slide-shows and youTube videos, listen to internet radio and play casual games. It can also double as alarm clock and iPod music player.

More importantly, because anybody can develop and share a widget, I am not married to any particular way of presenting photos. Flickr widget exists already, but other photo and video service widgets are on the way.

And, if I am still unhappy, I can write my own widgets. Chumby runs Linux under the covers and Flash Lite 3 interface. And, differently from Apple’s position with iPhone, Chumby Industries encourage people to modify their software, hardware and even basic device shape. Already, there are compilation packages for python, perl and even Java (actually JamVM).

Chumby is not yet for public sale, but that should happen any day now. I was on a mailing list, so got a pre-release invite. That is good, as it means I have some time to really play with my Chumby.

And if all goes well, my Chumby will soon have a new friend or two hiding under the Christmas tree overseas.

11 thoughts on “Chumby: Digital picture frame for parents and much more”

  1. Since you have one, could you elaborate on the difference between the Chumby
    and a Wii ?
    an apple TV ?
    a no-name DVD player with USB port and jpeg/Divx capabilities ?

  2. JM,

    I don’t think these things are in the same category at all. Chumby has a tiny screen and is basically designed to show one widget at a time. So, I think it is supposed to be primarily a companion widget rather than an activity gadget.

    Wii, Apple TV or even a DVD player are supposed to be a center of activity. You turn them on, use them (play, watch, etc.), go on to the next activity.

    Chumby is like a clock. It is always there and you glance at it periodically.

    The only similarity I can see is with Wii, in the sense that you can change what’s on it (games/widgets). In that sense, Chumby is more flexible, obviously within constrains of smaller CPU/memory environment, as anybody can develop an application.

  3. The reason I was asking is that the website says:
    “Because it’s always on, the chumby must be plugged in to an AC outlet. Unlike phones or other portable devices, the chumby does not spend any time in “sleep” mode, so a battery would not be able to power the 3.5″ color touchscreen for very long.”

    (and it’s not clear if it has to be always connected to the Internet to work, or if it can run from local storage/usb key too)

    So it fails the “portable/travel” usage I could envision as a digital picture frame (my solution is an add-on to the Nintendo DS – websearch for Moonshell or ImageViewer ).

    The Chumby target price is “under $200″ ($179.95??), close to the devices I was asking about (and they connect to the HUGE tv screen)…
    It’s much more expensive than cheap digital picture frames like
    1.5” Digital Photo Cube for USD25
    http://www.walmart.com/catalog/product.do?product_id=5913627
    or 7″ Digital Photo Frame for USD 60
    http://www.walmart.com/catalog/product.do?product_id=5679204
    or even printing in a digital shop

    Still, it’s nice to have an “open” and “tinkerable” internet widget…

    One comment on
    http://www.makezine.com/blog/archive/2007/10/new_chumby_is_here.html
    says “The fact that they sometimes inject “ads” onto your chumby kinda pisses me off.”

    how “annoying” are these ads – visual or also audio ?

  4. JM,

    If I could find a remotely-controlled Flickr-based wireless picture frame for cheaper, that would do just fine for my parents.

    I could not. I don’t believe any of the devices above have wireless connection or pull from online storage. The nearest one I know of is Kodak’s ex811 , but it is more expensive and only pulls from Kodak’s online gallery.

    Part of the higher price is screen size (which is worth it), but the other part is that they seem to be using Microsoft code under the covers. From what I have seen of other similar pictures, that last fact inflates the price of hardware and software and is negative, rather than positive feature to me.

    Chumby does need to be connected to Internet for the current functionality to work. All the widgets are downloaded from the central repository and are configured through the chumby.com’s website. It is possible to run local flash widgets and other software from the USB flash device, but at this point only as a hack/debug mode.

    Apparently, the future versions of Chumby may allow to run local widgets as part of normal setup, which would be very interesting.

    I haven’t seen the ads yet. I think they will show up at some point in the future and the model will be branded games and targeted offers rather than just generic ads. At this point I prefer that over monthly subscriptions.

    Worst case, if the ads get too annoying, I can always kill the primary interface and just use Chumby as tiny Linux box with an LCD and wireless. I can think of a number of things I could do with that, especially if I punch a firewall rule for it’s built-in web-server.

  5. >remotely-controlled Flickr-based wireless picture frame for cheaper,
    the closest ($199) I could find, bigger screen but no remote login, is http://www.estarling.com/products.html

    It has the intriguing feature “Immediate Direct Photo Emailing to Frame”

    Each frame has its own unique email address so that photos can be received from computers or mobile phones. A built-in email filter protects against unwanted photos. No setup is required for senders to send photos to the frame.

    It’s not clear if you can have add any RSS feed or only the one allowed by eStarling (I’ve emailed them to ask)

  6. Ah,

    eStarling is back. I waited for their product through 2006 and 2007 and they kept changing the delivery date for the updated (this one, I guess) version. The previous version had some major hardware issues apparently. I gave up on them around March.

    It is good to know they are shipping again, but I would wait a bit before buying for the reviews to start coming in.

  7. Regarding eStarling and using your own RSS feed, I wrote to them asking:
    “I would like to have the RSS feed of a picture blog of my children shown on the eStarling.”

    Their answer:
    I’m sorry it is impossible. we currently support Flickr and Picasa.[…]
    our intention is to support ALL photo feeds

    I guess your own photo feed does not count…

  8. I like the idea of placing the chumby at your parents home and controlling the actual pictures remotely. That makes a lot of sense, and I can imagine, a great gift. Still if I get my hands on another chumby, I’d like to develop a more social app. on it. Not just broadcast to the chumby, but also accept input (from its users) – creating this closed, private social network of these physical objects which allow us to share our daily lives!
    Good luck with your programming.

  9. I too had been looking for a digital frame for my parents, with similar issues (still getting over the trauma of my parents and their first PC). I had a good look around and eventually settled on the eStarling from these guys http://www.udiggit.com they were really helpful. My mum loves it and I regularly email her new photos of her grandson, I also understand that you can now use your photobucket account to send images from as well as the email service provided with the frame by Seeframe.

  10. Andrew,

    Thanks for the review. It does look like eStarling has finally ramped up their production. I will keep them in mind for when I want to give a simple picture frame. Chumby is still cooler though, because it also does Internet Radio (among other things).

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