$169 Transit Information Appliance

One of my “Holy Grail” quests is to figure out how to put Nextbus-style transit information out in the world inexpensively to encourage transit use. Our Transit Boardâ„¢ tool is intended to make it dead simple to deliver this in a web browser.

But how to get cheap web browser displays into coffee shops, doctor’s offices and other places where people might actually want/use the information?

You may recall that I experimented with the Chumby device. It didn’t have a web browser, but I was able to use an RSS reader app to get next arrivals onto its 3.5 inch display. But since that only displayed one arrival at a time, it was not an “in-one-glance” interface. I’ve been hoping one of the digital photo frame companies would offer a browser – and now it’s happened – sort of.

Best Buy is now offering an “Internet Media Display” product in their house brand Insignia line, called the Insignia Infocast for a mere $169.99.

It turns out it runs the Chumby interface, but more significantly the technogear web sites have been abuzz with the fact that it can easily be hacked to run a web browser. So I counted my pennies and headed out to Best Buy on Saturday to grab one.

SDC10760

RSS interface, but now at 8"

The first thing I did was fire up the RSS-based interface I had developed for the original Chumby. It was definitely more readable at 8 inches, but still had the downside of requiring you to watch as it cycled through the arrivals, one every few seconds.

So I followed the relatively simple directions (at least for geeks) and built a USB flash drive to plug into the back of the unit. Up came a web browser!

[BTW – It turns out there is also a browser for the Chumby One, but not my original Chumby, so this could be done in the 3.5 inch form factor as well for $50 less than the 8″ Infocast.]

After plugging in a keyboard so I could actually type a URL, I found that Transit Board worked just fine, although the font sizes needed some adjustment. So 10 minutes and a new stylesheet later, I had a working display!

SDC10761

Transit Board in all its glory (keyboard NOT required)

A little more tweaking to USB stick and I was able to get the browser to open up by default to the Transit Board display.

So could this become the ubiquitous tool I’ve been questing for? It’s still a little complex. A location desiring a display would have to:

  1. Acquire the device
  2. Power it up and setup the wifi connection via the out-of-the-box Chumby interface (no wired ethernet port – you have to have wifi)
  3. Build a USB stick (on a PC – 1GB flash drives can be found for about $5)
  4. Plug it in and reboot!

Obviously step 3 is the killer. Conceivably you could build a web-based tool to automate this (plug in your drive and go to the web site and walk through a wizard), but I suspect a service to do this would be a better approach.

Could Portland Transport put together a package that included the device and configuration? Would on-site setup be required to make it all work?

Who’d want one? Ride Connection has been getting computers from Free Geek and installing Transit Board at some locations. Would this device be a model that could work for them?

Who else might drive this? Anyone want to be an early adopter?

Presumably future hardware with the Chumby interface will be similarly hackable. I wonder what form factors might appear next?

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