Geeks Build Gadget With Bug

The 2008 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is dominated by big names like Microsoft, Sony and Panasonic, which take center stage with megadisplays packed with people clamoring to see the companies' newest releases, while smaller companies are banished to low-traffic, off-the-beaten-path exhibition halls.

This year, however, one tiny New York company with a booth smaller than a bathroom managed to break through the clutter with a gadget called the Bug that consumers will actually want to buy.

The Bug is a battery-operated computer base with space for four modules that snap into it, including an LCD touch screen, a video camera/digital camera, Global Positioning System and motion sensor. With the modules, users can build a variety of devices, including a mobile GPS, a surveillance system and a PDA. CNET, christening it the "Lego of Gadgets," named the Bug one of the best gadgets at CES.

"I think that's a great description, because it brings to mind exactly what this is, which is a modular consumer electronics device," said Peter Semmelhack, founder and CEO of BugLabs. "It's very similar to the way you build things with Legos except you build gadgets."

The gadget, which runs on the Linux operating system, is purchased as a blank slate. Because it's an open source gadget, programmers can develop applications for it that can turn it into an MP3 player or a mobile text device, among a variety of other things. So far, a community of programmers has developed several applications for the device that can be downloaded from the company's Web site.

"One of the things that we're trying to address is this notion that we are all kind of trapped by the existing model of consumer electronics, which is we sit and we wait for them to give us something," Semmelhack said. "I think most of us are getting used to having more control of what we purchase and how it's constructed. Everyone has their own MySpace page, everyone has their own Facebook page and the idea of extreme personalization is becoming very important."

Currently, the base Bug unit costs $299; the motion detector, $49; the LCD screen, $99; the GPS, $79; and digital video camera, $69.

"The idea that you'll be able to get the base and all those for roughly $500," Semmelhack said.

Although the gadget can only be preordered now at the company's Web site, BugLabs marketing director Jeremy Toeman hopes to have the units in major retailers like Best Buy by next year.

Potentially, the gadget might employ a kiosk system, like those used in Japan, according to Toeman.

"You'll go into the store, Best Buy, and you'll have this beautiful BugLabs kiosk. You'll pick the different modules," he said. "You'll have the kiosk with a touch-screen interface and you'll pick out all the applications you want."