When I was a good few years younger, I loved to play with Lego. My favorite activity was to mix together pieces from different sets to make something completely new. Part of the reason I’ve decided to become an electrical engineer and computer scientist is that I simply love putting things together. Lego has a number of advanced sets which involve electronics: Mindstorms come to mind. Today Linux Devices ran a story about a startup that was making something that can essentially be called electronic Lego. Bug Labs, as the company is called, is creating a set of electronic device modules that can easily be plugged together to build a wide range of more complex devices.
You start with a small, but fully operational computer built from an ARM1136JF-S CPU with 128MB of RAM and various connectors including USB, Ethernet and WiFi. To this base you can add various modules. Currently planned modules include a camera, a GPS locator and later a touchscreen and keyboard. Once you have your hardware fitted together, you can build your software using Java running on top of Linux. Running on top of Java is OSGi, which provides a service-centered runtime environment for your applications. While that may not sound as simple as fitting together Lego blocks, it shouldn’t be anything that a good programmer can’t handle.
Now that we know what we’re talking about, the question is: what’s the point? Besides the obvious appeal as an extremely cool geek toy, a BUG, as they’re called, could be a great way to build a prototype for a specialized electronics device. Put together a BUG with a handful of modules to get the functionality you want and then use that to iron out the kinks. Once you have a working prototype, you can think about combining everything tightly into a specialized. No need to build custom parts just to test a concept. Whether or not there will be enough to demand to make it a hit is something that only time will tell. The initial release is slated for later this year and then more modules early next year. There’s no information on pricing yet, and pricing will be an important factor, especially for hobbyists who will probably the early adopters. Using the modules to build a simple home media server is something I would personally be interested in.
If you think this is something that interests you, you should check out the Chumby, another example of open-source electronics. Though it’s more modest in its aims, the central idea is more or less the same: provide a simple, robust platform on which people can easily build their own applications.