By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
“What the hell is it?”
My co-worker watches as I unpack the weird device. It looks like a clock radio in a beanbag. It has a video screen, it’s padded in rubber and leather, and it’s soft and squashy. It’s the most recent in the growing field of “ambient” consumer electronic devices. (Remember the groovy Ambient Orb from your old SkyMall catalog, which would light up green if the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up, or red if it was down?) The Chumby is what would have resulted if God had asked David Cronenberg to design the baked potato.
Chumby is supposed to connect wirelessly to the Internet and play simple programs, called “widgets”; that calculator on your computer desktop, for instance, is a widget, as is the Scramble word game on your Facebook page. Touted as an “Internet buffet,” the Chumby will play endless loops of widgets: whale-watching cams, daily horoscopes, video clips from the Late Show or 60 Minutes, weather and traffic reports, etc.
Or so I’ve been told. In our office building, the Chumby has difficulties grabbing onto the wireless network. I connect it to a computer manually with a USB cord.
“Hmm,” says our I.T. guy, “I don’t like the way it’s scouring the network. It just doesn’t look like a well-behaved network device. Sorry to be a computer nazi about this, but can you disconnect it?”
We unplug the baked potato. I.T. Department = 1. Chumby = 0.
I take the Chumby home. I don’t have wireless DSL at my place ... but the neighbors do.
What was that quote the Chumby makers say encapsulates the essence of their business strategy? “Whoever you are,” said Blanche DuBois, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” I’m adopting that strategy as well.
And to good effect: success! The Chumby is up and running. I go to Chumby.com and choose widgets I’d like the Chumby to play. Now, every 30 seconds, the Chumby’s screen changes: Daily Horoscope. NBA scores. Surf reports. Today in History. Japanese syllabary flash cards. Thanks to Shamu Cam, I can see that SeaWorld’s big whale is flippering around in his tank. Occasionally, he butts up against the camera. Panda Cam at the San Diego Zoo shows nothing but foliage. Via a widget called Chuck Norris Facts, I learn stuff I never knew I needed to know: “Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door.” This is the Web’s stream of consciousness.
Reverently, I place the Chumby on the kitchen counter. It comes packaged, inexplicably, with an assortment of rubber charms. An egg. A ham. A squid. A two-headed planaria. You hang the charms on a silver button on the side of the Chumby. The operative principle being, if you plan to make something weird, why not make it really, really weird?
Chumby teaches me about battle. From Sun Tzu’s The Art of War widget, I learn The Use of Spies: “Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men. ... Hence the use of spies. ... Without subtle ingenuity of mind, one cannot make certain of the truth of their reports.”
Meanwhile, a widget called ChumbySpy lets you watch random security-camera footage from all over the world, yet it won’t tell you where you’re looking exactly. This is frustrating. And postmodern.
It’s a testy little machine. Sometimes the Chumby senses the network. Sometimes, sluggish, it does not. Plus, its screen has grown warm to the touch. Is Chumby running a fever? This is normal, I’m told. I repack it in its original cloth drawstring pouch, in which it sits for the rest of the afternoon, like a severed head in a burlap sack.
After several restarts, the Chumby is back in business. It’s like leaving a very small TV on all the time. That’s just what the world needs, right? Another computer screen to stare at? We are in a state of love-hate, Chumby and I.
Chumby and I sleep together for the first time today. It feels so wrong yet so right.
“Barack Obama rescued you from drowning,” Chumby says.
“Barack Obama baked you a pie.”
“Barack Obama held your hand when you were frightened.”
“Barack Obama gave you a puppy.”
At night I fall asleep to the Chumby widget based on the non-Chumby Web site that recently became a book called Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle: 366 Ways He Really Cares. The tiny 3-inch monitor glows softly in the darkened room. I dream of baked potatoes and American presidents.
Chumby never seems to be playing the widget I want it to play. When I look at it, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Loch Ness cam, it gives me the BBC News headlines. In this sense, Chumby seems to have a mind of its own.