For those who love to tinker, the beauty of the modern desktop computer lies in its limitless flexibility. Thanks to a plethora of standardized options for expansion and upgrade, a desktop can be tailored to do pretty much anything with a little effort and the right hardware. Add a webcam and it’s a teleconferencing machine. Add a graphics card with video output and it’s a home theater PC. Add a 500GB drive and it’s a file server.
Unfortunately, this modular concept never really translated to the portable realm, where emphasis on size drove electronics into slick, tightly packaged units without much room for expansion. When you buy a cell phone, every feature it will ever have is built in, and when you need a feature it doesn’t have, upgrading means buying a new phone. For the tinkerer, there’s just not a lot of room to play.
The team at Bug Labs hopes to break out of that rut with its BUG line of modular, programmable gadgets, bringing desktop-style freedom to a portable device. The BUG system consists of modules that snap together to form whatever owners dream up, from GPS loggers to motion-detecting cameras.
The rectangular BUGbase unit, which is roughly the size of a small TV remote, forms the core of the BUG system. It’s a full-function computer, complete with an ARM processor (similar to what you might find in a PDA), 128MB memory, and even on-board graphics acceleration. However, quite unlike devices that pack similar hardware, the BUGbase is packed to the gills with different interfaces, from everyday USB ports, to a more specialized LCD interface that allows users to tack on a display module, and a slew of others in between.
Since the BUGbase doesn’t even include a color LCD screen, most of the system’s real functionality comes from the thin, square modules that snap onto it. The first round of modules released includes a 2.5-inch LCD screen, a combined motion detector and accelerometer, a GPS receiver, and a 2.0-megapixel camera. But more are on the way. BUG modules slated for a second-quarter 2008 release include a touch-sensitive LCD with twice the screen size as the first, a mini-QWERTY keyboard, and an improved speaker with audio input and output jacks.
Although the modules snap together neatly, on the software side, there’s nothing “plug and play” about them: this system was built for techie types. Bug Labs even posts a disclaimer on the company store plainly stating that users need to be able to write code in Java, lest novice users get sucked in by the allure of shiny plastic without realizing what they’re buying.
For those who know what they’re doing, the possibilities are endless. The Bug team made a commitment to using only open-source software for the system, so from a programming perspective, the entire system is your oyster if you have the skills. Bug Labs offers a specialized software development kit, internally codenamed Dragonfly, for free, with constantly updated builds.
The basic “Hiro P Edition” BUGbase runs for $299 at a limited-time “early adopter price,” while modules run from $49 (for the motion detector) up to $99 (for the LCD screen) with the same discount. So while a BUG system may not challenge the practicality of a $200 Palm, picking a system up as a new hobby certainly won’t break the bank anymore than your average PC building hobby does. More information on the BUG system is available through Bug Labs.