Exploring DIY E-Reader Platforms

I’ve been working with the EPUB open ebook format a lot lately, but when I want to read a book in it, I have to use my computer. There just aren’t any devices which support it yet. Naturally this leads me to wonder whether I could build my own e-reader.

I’m not a hardware person, but the last few years have seen an emergence of open hardware platforms designed to allow even ordinary programmers like me to modify and customize small devices. As far as software goes, an e-reader is pretty straightforward: it’s just some text on a screen. That shouldn’t be too hard, right?

Surveying the landscape of hardware options, I’ve ranked below a variety of devices from “friendliest” to “most-intensive DIY.” I’m not addressing PDA or phone devices here, largely because I consider their screen size and text rendering insufficient (but plenty of people disagree).

The Chumby — With a 3.5″ touch screen and reasonable $175 price tag, this little wireless computer in a bean bag is an obvious candidate. There’s a full-fledged development environment and large community of users. Most Chumby applications are written in a lightweight version of Flash, which is easy enough to develop in.

It has a few downsides, though. The Chumby doesn’t have much storage space at all, so any ebooks would have to be saved online and streamed to it, a page or a chapter at a time. Since it’s meant to be an always-on wireless device, that seems doable. The screen might be too small to comfortably read lots of text, as it’s meant for short bursts like RSS feeds or Twitter updates.

Unfortunately, it’s powered by a wall outlet, with only a small 9-volt battery for emergency backup. People on the hardware forums have managed to hack in rechargeable batteries, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a totally-wireless Chumby is forthcoming. [Disclosure: O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures is an investor in Chumby Industries.]

BugLabs — The most open of the commercial hardware platforms, BugLabs sells individual pluggable modules that support various features, from touchscreens to cameras to GPS. It looks like a great platform, but it’s very expensive ($349 for the base module plus $119 for the 2.5″ touch-sensitive screen). The screen is probably too small for comfortable reading, but the company Web site promises a larger display soon.

Both the Chumby and BugLabs have touchscreens, which is key for making small screens more usable.

The Kindle — All the heavy lifting has been done already to get into the Kindle filesystem
and peek inside. It’s probably too difficult to extend the existing Kindle environment without true source code, but it might be possible to do some simple things, like add new fonts. Few people have really explored hacking on e-ink devices, largely due to high cost and low availability. I suspect when the first color e-ink devices come out, used black and white ones will become popular playthings for enthusiasts.

YBox2 — For
the ultimate DIY experience, the YBox2 platform is a pile of electronic parts you solder together and assemble in an Altoids tin. It doesn’t come with a touch-screen, or any screen at all: you connect it to a television or monitor. It uses the tiny Propeller chip, which powers many hobbyist devices and small robots. Like the Chumby, YBox2 comes with networking capability but little storage, and would need to stream book content from the Internet. The networking isn’t
wireless and of course there’s no handy rechargable battery, but if you
are the kind of person who can build a YBox2 you probably know how to
make those too. I am not that kind of person.

While I’d be happy to crawl around a hacked Kindle, I know I’m not ready to program my own microcontroller. BugLabs seems great from a developer standpoint, especially when they release a larger screen, but I’m unwilling to shell out almost $500 just to experiment. The Sony Reader doesn’t have networking, so that’s much less interesting. Perhaps a Chumby is in my future. Any other options?

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