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Eric Bruno

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

What is a BUG?

September 24, 2009

I recently spoke with Peter Semmelhack, founder of BugLabs (http://buglabs.net), and home of the famous Test Kitchen (http://buglabs.net/testkitchen) - more on that in a moment. What is BugLabs, you ask? They're a software company with a hardware focus, if that makes sense. Their goal is to make it easier for others to bring hardware device ideas to life, and eventually to market.  Semmelhack described it like this: if you have an idea for a software product (commercial or open-source), all you need is a modest computer, open-source software such as Linux, MySQL, Eclipse, NetBeans, and so on, and a little spare time to get started. Besides the time and effort, it doesn't take much money or other resources to start and complete such a venture. 


Semmehack continued by contrasting this to hardware device development. If you have an idea, it's very difficult and expensive to build a working prototype, and far too expensive to produce in moderate quantities to sell into small or medium-sized markets. Basically, to bring production costs down, get investment, and have any hope of turning a profit in the consumer space, you need to sell millions of devices. Investors generally won't invest in hardware devices that aim to meet smaller market demands, and sell only hundreds-of-thousands of devices. Those that do, tend to focus on very expensive devices, such as those used in health-care for instance, and hence not for the consumer space.


But think about all of those good ideas for devices that would otherwise meet all sorts of small-market needs that just never get built. Semmelhack used an example of a unique medical device he built quickly and easily to meet the need of a family member. Because of the relatively small market for such a device, it doesn't exist today, although it can potentially save lives. How did he build it so easily then? With a BUG.


The BugLabs BUG


A BUG is a modular system for building devices, based on ARM processors with plug-gable expansion modules, running open-source software including Linux and the OpenJDK or phoneME Java VM. The BUGbase computer is an embedded  Linux computer with 128M of memory, storage, 802.11b/g wireless, USB connectivity, integrated battery, LEDs, audio output, and support for up to four plug-gable modules. BUGbase modules currently available expand its features to include support for 3G cellular connectivity, GPS, an LCD screen, Bluetooth, extended audio I/O, motion detection and an accelerometer, and an expansion board for further development. There's even a third-party module available that measures interesting things about the environment, such as changes in temperature, the existence of odors, or the existence of alcohol on one's breath.


The modules plug into the base like a child's building blocks. You can witness this for yourself in the videos available on BugLabs' product page: http://www.buglabs.net/products


Semmehack's guiding vision is to bring a community approach to hardware development, and BugLabs is watching this vision become reality as they sign up more and more big-named customers.


Software Platform


The software platform for the BUG is all open-source, including Pokey Linux, OpenJDK/phoneME, the Eclipse IDE, and all of the software that BugLabs has developed to help you build a new device. The entire platform and development SDK is based on OSGi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osgi), where you can build new software services that plug right into the software platform as easily as hardware modules plug into the BUGbase computer. The Eclipse plug-in provides an easy drag-and-drop interface to make it easier for anyone to re-configure their BUG-based devices or add new functionality.


The Test Kitchen


What I liked most about BugLabs (and there's a lot to like about a company that provides Java-based device development to the masses) is their self-proclaimed world famous Test Kitchen (buglabs.net/testkitchen). Here, they have all sorts of hardware tools and components--including BUGs of course--to experiment with and wire up new and interesting things. In fact, they often open their doors and let the public into their Test Kitchen during free workshops led by a knowledgeable instructor. The fact that they open their doors to the public with nothing but education as the goal is impressive to me.


Like I said, there's a lot to like about BugLabs, especially the spirit they bring to open-source Java-based hardware invention. I particularly like the fact that they started with a vision, saw it through to an actual product in a short amount of time, have seen growth through big-named customers, employ a bunch of programmers and engineers in NYC, use Java, and have a singular goal to help average people become successful inventors. That's all cool.


Learn more about their development platform here: http://www.buglabs.net/you


Happy coding!





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