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The Bug of Devices

Jan 14, 2008 — by Rick Lehrbaum — 26 views

Startup Bug Labs, which aims to turn the task of constructing smart devices into a non-technical, lego-like affair, will begin accepting orders for its Linux-powered electronic building blocks later this month for shipment starting Mar. 17.

Bug Labs founder Peter Semmelhack describes the Bug family of products as a case of “Legos meets Web services & APIs.”

“Imagine being able to build any gadget you wanted by simply connecting simple, functional components together,” Semmelhack wrote last July on the Bug Labs blog. “Now imagine being able to easily program, share and connect these gadgets in interesting ways. In essence, we’re building an open source-based platform for programmers to build not only the applications they want but the hardware to run it on.”

The company is targeting hackers, hobbyists, and students with its plug-and-play, modular product line.

The heart of the system is the “Bug Base” module. This rectangular building block integrates a “hackable Linux computer” core based on an ARM11 processor, along with 128MB RAM, WiFi, USB, Ethernet, a small LCD with button controls, and a rechargeable battery.

A hypothetical Bug module stack

As indicated in the above illustration, various application-oriented Bug modules can plug into the top and bottom of the Bug Base, to adapt the system to the needs of a particular application. Each module is encased in its own cover, so the guts of the system are protected from its environment (and prying fingers).

Key features and specs of the Bug Base, as listed by the company, include:

  • ARM1136JF-S-based processor
  • 1 USB 2.0 HS host interface with 4 hub port connections
  • 1 USB OTG HS interface
  • 4 serial ports
  • 4 SPI ports
  • I2C (400 Kbps) interface (4 channels)
  • I2S interface (2 channels)
  • Smart LCD interface
  • Camera sensor interface
  • Micro memory card interface
  • MPEG4 hardware encoding/decoding
  • Hardware graphic acceleration
  • 10/100 Ethernet MAC
  • 802.11b/g
  • Base unit LCD module interface
  • Base unit onboard memory (FLASH/DDR SDRAM)
  • JTAG/ICE support
  • Serial debug port
  • Power system
  • AC operation
  • Battery operation/up to 4 external batteries
  • Fast battery charging/simultaneous of internal and external batteries
  • Smart power management support
  • Battery-backed real-time clock
  • Audio out via onboard piezo speaker

Bug Base unit top (upper) and bottom (lower)

Bug Labs says that on Jan. 21, it will begin taking orders on its website for the Bug Base (above), an LCD module (below left), a GPS module (below right), a camera module, and a motion detector module.

Bug LCD (left) and GPS (right) modules

Hackable Linux stack

Naturally, none of these modules will perform any useful functions without some embedded software. To this end, the Bug Base will be supplied with a “complete” Linux software stack, as well as with a comprehensive software development kit (SDK), according to the company.

Bug Labs plans to release all software that it contributes to the Bug Linux stack under the GPLv3 open-source software license. Other software in the SDK will be governed by a variety of open-source licenses, including GPLv2 (e.g. for the Linux kernel), and others.

The software stack is based on a 2.6.19 Linux kernel. It comes with an Eclipse IDE (integrated development environment) development framework, and even includes a “virtual Bug” that can be used for developing Bug applications in the absence of an actual Bug Base.

Bug SDK screenshots
(Click each to enlarge)

The company is attempting to create a community around the Bug modules’ Linux software stack, and has launched a Bug forum and a Bug wiki to facilitate community involvement.


Bug Labs says it is offering an “early adopter” discount of 13 percent (or greater) on products during the first 60 days of sales. The company expects to begin shipping the first production run of Bug modules on Mar. 17; these are currently priced as follows:

  • Bug base — $349 ($299 w/discount)
  • LCD module — $119 ($99 w/discount)
  • GPS module — $99 ($79 w/discount)
  • Camera module $79 ($69 w/discount)
  • Motion detector / accelerometer module — $59 ($49 w/discount)

Further details are available on the Bug Labs website.

[All images are courtesy of Bug Labs.]

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