Project Sun Spot was the brainchild of Sun Labs, which developed the basic technology but soon realized it had more possibilities than its team could research. So Sun Labs has made the technology available to anyone willing to purchase a kit for $550.
Your chances of having the first one on the block: Very high, as supplies are limited and frequently need to be back-ordered.
What you should know: The Sun Spot technology is decidedly not commercial — it's more like an open source hardware/software platform. So be warned: If you're not willing to go deep into the tech thicket and work with an evolving technology, Sun Spot is not for you. The kits can be ordered only from Sun.
What you need: A PC running Windows XP, Mac OS X 10.4, and Linux (Fedora Core 5, SuSE 10.1, and Ubuntu 6.06 have all been tested). Sun has not formally tested Sun Spot on Vista or Leopard, but users report that it works on those operating systems. Each kit costs $550.
Honorable mention: Trossen Robotics' Phidgets are also a cool way to get into electronic kits. You can assemble I/O boards, sensors and controllers into modules that connect to your PC via USB, then create programs for them in any Microsoft .Net language, Flash, Visual Basic, VBA (Microsoft Access and Excel), LabView, Java, C, and C++. Prices for the components (some available in kits) range from $7 to more than $500.
Vudu Box movies-on-demand server
Why you must have it: Sure, it's a bit clichéd to get yet another entertainment box, but the ongoing industry transformation to digital media delivery gives you no choice. The cable and satellite companies have been pushing video on demand for years, so why bother with the Vudu Box? The answer is that you get to keep your movies with Vudu — sort of like an iPod that can store your digital movie collection and move them to your TV. And you're not tied into your current TV provider's offerings. Vudu uses a broadband connection to download the movies, which you can either rent for 24 hours or buy, and there's no monthly subscription fee. The HD-capable Vudu Box can access about 5,000 movie titles — though it only store about 100 movies at a time. When Vudu upgrades its software next year, you'll be able to store movies on a USB 2.0 hard drive (the Box has two USB ports). Another option: Store them on Vudu's Web site, and they'll be streamed back down when you want to watch them.
Your chances of having the first one on the block: High, as this movie server has been available only since September.
What you should know: The encoding technology is proprietary, so you cannot move over TiVo'd or other view files to the Vudu Box. The company offers about 5,000 titles, so the selection is about as much as a large video-rental store's inventory. There's a risk that if the company goes under, you'll lose access to any movies you've bought but not stored locally. HD films play only over the Vudu Box's HDMI connections, not over its composite interface.