Because I "knew somebody who knew somebody", I was one of 100 developers to receive a Chumby a few years ago, before they hit the market. "What is a Chumby?", you may be asking? It's this thing:
Chumby is a soft handheld electronic device that connects to the Internet wirelessly (but must remain tethered to an electrical connection, unfortunately) and displays a series of widgets that you can view, listen to, or interact with. The widgets are selected by modifying your Chumby's online channel, and they include games, utilities, media viewers, and all sorts of other cool stuff.
The "price" of receiving one of these Alpha units was developing a widget, so the Chumby folks could have a collection of offerings to give value to their soon-to-be-released product. My first widget was Face Maker, which you can play with below:
(click it - it won't bite)
I decided to create this widget so that users could literally personalize their Chumbies, giving the opportunity to create the face that best suits their new toy. I also figured that once the product was out, this would be a natural widget to choose for publicity photos of the product, which might create some automatic marketing for me. That's called strategy, son. It didn't really work, though - I have found a few photos of Chumbies with my widget on their screens, it didn't become the bonanza I'd hoped/fantasized about. Oh well.
Chumbies have a fairly small touch screen (320x240 pixels), but they also have an accelerometer inside, which means they can sense movement like the iPhone and the Wii. This means you can create a widget that reacts to the user's motion. In the case of Face Maker (though you can't see it above - please don't try tilting your laptop or monitor) the pupils of the eyes could be moved around by rotating the Chumby. Pretty neat. The device also has a squeeze sensor, but that's only used to bring up the main system menu. Initially a light sensor was also planned, but from what I hear that was scrapped before the Alpha units were released.
The frame rate of the Chumby is (or was, at least, in its Alpha state) pretty low, so the interactivity was somewhat clunky. Because the screen was small, buttons had to be fairly generous in size. Also, file sizes need to be pretty small (I compressed the sound file for that little click down to within an inch of its life), because none of the widgets are stored on the Chumby - the units pull each widget down via their Wifi connections every time the user (or the unit's timer) advances to the next one. The price of limited memory, I suppose.
But these are small compromises for such an innovative little device. I went on to develop two more widgets for the Chumby (a Whack-a-Mole style game featuring random faces stolen from Face Maker and a top-down space shooter that I still haven't released), but once the product was available to the public for a period of time, they shut down the Alpha units' ability to be on the Chumby network, and my little friend went dim. I've considered buying another one (we early developers were offered a price of $180 - the product retails for $199) but haven't done so yet. They're really fun, but the (understandable) necessity of the power cord, combined with my more convenient and always present iPhone, may have taken the steam out of that purchase. Someday, Chumby, we'll be friends once again.
Not long after I started creating products for my Zazzle store, I pulled elements from Face Maker and created three faces for a kid's shirt. uncleverly named "Three Monster Faces". I probably could have pushed harder on that one.
Three Monster Faces on Zazzle