Bug Labs: The Open-Source Hardware Store

“We want to replace consumer electronics with community electronics.”

That’s the kind of cocktail conversation we tech bloggers can’t pass up. And when I heard it from one of the folks at the bar last night, I knew I had stumbled into the right place—the Bug Labs happy hour at the Middlesex Lounge just off the MIT campus.

Turns out the speaker was Jeremy Toeman, the self-described “marketing guy” at Bug Labs, which is out to reinvent the way engineers build electronic gadgets. The premise of the Manhattan-based company, which has venture backing from Boston’s Spark Capital, is that hardware, not just software, can be open-source. It’s getting ready to ship a collection of hardware modules that can be mixed, matched, mashed up, and generally transmogrified into almost anything the user has in mind. According to Toeman, Bug Labs wants to make it as easy to invent a new gadget as it is to write a new Web application. (Which, these days, is pretty easy—why else do you think there are so many Web 2.0 startups littering the tech colonies in Boston, New York, Seattle, and Silicon Valley?)

Say you think it would be cool to be able to take photos, geotag them, and upload them to your Flickr photo-sharing account automatically. (Geotagging is the process of attaching latitude and longitude coordinates to a piece of content, so that it can later be placed on a Web map or used in some other location-based application.) You could go and look for a company that sells an Internet-capable GPS camera. Or you could buy a Bug Labs BUGbase—the small, Flash-memory-based computer that is at the heart of the system—along with a Bug Labs camera module, a Wi-Fi module, and a GPS module, then hire a computer scence undergrad to hack together some code that grabs the geo-coordinates from the GPS module, writes them to your photos’ EXIF files, jumps on the nearest WiFi network, and uses HTTP and XML to shoot your photos over to Flickr. It may not be drop-dead simple, exactly, but it’s a heck of a lot more doable than putting all those components onto your own brand-new circuit board, or convincing a Sony or a Nokia to manufacture the device of your dreams.

Bug Labs, once it starts shipping (in “Q4 of 2007,” according to its website), will provide you with all of the needed parts and more. But it’s not building actual demonstration applications like the hypothetical geo-Flickr camera (which is sad, because I’d really like to have one). At the happy hour, which was arranged to follow a talk called “Exploring the Long Tail of Devices” by founder/CEO Peter Semmelhack at MIT’s Mass Customization and Personalization Conference, I managed to snag Semmelhack himself, who explained that the company wants to provide tools, not finished products.

So its engineers are carefully refraining from building prototypes that might bias customers in a particular direction. If the company invested time building a Bug Labs handheld ultrasound scanner, for example, or some kind of One Laptop Per Child-style classroom device, or a battlefield navigation aid, it might quickly be pigeonholed as a medical devices company, or an education company, or a military contractor. Semmelhack wants to let a thousand flowers bloom—or, to put it another way, he wants there to be a Long Tail of consumer devices built in low volumes for specialized audiences.

There’s some risk, of course, in not building the applications needed to demonstrate your technology (as almost every builder of a new platform these days does; local startup Matchmine, for example, has built a couple of neat programs to demonstrate how its recommendation engine works, as I talked about two weeks ago, and even Facebook built a few of its own applications before the flood of third-party Facebook apps began). The danger is that your company only looks as good as whatever your first-generation customers are clever enough to build with your tools. Semmelhack admitted that’s a hazard—but seemed more than happy to risk it for the sake of launching what is, after all, a radically new concept in the gadgets world. He said he thought people would be so attracted to the cost savings inherent in using Bug Labs’ modules—which don’t require you to build everything yourself from scratch simply in order to test out an idea for a product—that the company will succeed, whatever people build at first.

If it still seems risky to you, I agree, and so I was delighted when Semmelhack plucked Spark Capital partner Bijan Sabet from the crowd at the bar. It’s not often that I get to buttonhole both the founder/CEO of a startup and one of his VCs (Bug Labs also has funding from Union Square Ventures, which has offices upstairs from Bug Labs’ on Broadway). So I put to Sabet, right in front of Semmelhack: How can you be comfortable investing in a company whose revenue stream seems so…hypothetical? He laughed and said “That’s what I do all day, why do you think Bug Labs is any different?”

The first step, Sabet said, was simply to start getting hardware out the door. Soon enough, he and Semmelhack said, the company will get orders for hundreds or thousands of BUGbases and Bug modules—which the company will be happy to package inside any type of custom casing, under any corporate logo, as long it still says “Bug Powered” somewhere on the box.

But don’t wait for a press release about the first hardware shipment—Toeman says he hates writing them and that he intends to communicate with the public and the press through the company’s blog. I’ve since checked it out, and it’s just as friendly, unassuming, and informative as the Bug Labs folks I met last night. I’m wishing them luck—and waiting for someone to build me a gadget that lets me use my Xbox controller to answer my e-mail without stopping my game of Halo 3.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Bug Labs: The Open-Source Hardware Store”

  1. turn_self_off says:

    “bug powered”, im not sure if i would be comfortable with a product that said that one the box ;)