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It’s cute. It’s orange. It’s got bunny ears -- An update on the One Laptop Per Child project
Ethan Zuckerman, 7 Jun 06

laptop100.jpg Recently, I visited with my friends Walter Bender and Jim Gettys at the new headquarters of the One Laptop per Child Project. I’m writing an article for the IEEE Spectrum on the project and had asked Walter if I could come by and grill him on the technical and conceptual details of the project. But that’s really just an excuse - I’m fascinated by the project, and am trying to offer what help I can to Nicholas Negroponte and his team in helping people understand what the project is and isn’t, offering my perspective on how the device might best be rolled out, supported and used in developing nations.

One of the most interesting phenomena surrounding the One Laptop Per Child project has been the amount of attention it’s garnered, not just from the development community, but from average users around the world. Interest in the project seems to focus on a basic and very compelling idea: a laptop that costs a hundred dollars or less. After writing my earlier piece on OLPC, I now average 20 emails a week asking to purchase the laptop, or recieve one as a gift. I now have a keyboard macro that gives a stock response: I’m not officially affiliated with the project, the laptop isn’t available yet, and when it is, it will be sold in lots of a million or more to governments and school systems.

Most of the people who write me are interested in owning a laptop they can afford. And that, it turns out, is not the goal of the One Laptop Per Child project. Their goal is to produce a laptop designed for use by children - students in grades K-12. And that requires radically different design decisions than what one would make in simply creating a low-cost laptop.

Getting across the distinction that this is a children’s laptop, not just a cheap laptop, is a surprisingly difficult task. When I last wrote about the laptop on Worldchanging, a number of commenters mentioned that they’d like one of the computers as a backup or travel computer - I suspect they might feel differently after playing with one of the current prototypes. They’re really small. This is a good thing - I wouldn’t want a kindergarden student carrying around my 12" PowerBook - it’s too heavy and too fragile. The current prototype is little, orange, and very, very cute. It has a molded plastic handle and looks remarkably like a Speak and Spell.

It’s got bunny ears - antenni for the 802.11s wireless radios, which are designed to self-assemble meshes with other laptops. The ears fold down to cover the USB, power and mic ports, an excellent design for the sorts of dusty environments I can imagine the device used in. The screen in the current prototype is a conventional LCD screen - the screen in the production devices will be roughly the same size, probably slightly larger than the 7.5" screen in the prototype, but will be based around a technique that doesn’t require white fluorescent backlight. (Many of the questions I need to answer for the IEEE article concern the screen, as it’s one of the most expensive and power-hungry components of the machine.) The keyboard is about 60% of the size of a conventional keyboard and has calculator-style keys.

My favorite feature of the current prototype is the hinge that holds the machine together. Ever since Nicholas outlined the engineering challenges of building a good hinge, I’ve been fascinated by the different ways people attach screens to laptops. As promised, the laptop can be folded into an ebook, with the screen on top, used as a handheld game player, or have the screen turned around so the machine can be used as a video player. Walter tells me that Quanta, the company responsible for manufacturing the machine, insisted on the hinge used in the prototype because it’s the only one they trusted to stand up to the wear kids will put on the machine.

In other words, while I love it, I’m not trading my laptop in for one any time soon. I suspect that low-cost computers designed by AMD and others are likely more appropriate for most users than the laptop. Again, that’s okay - the goal isn’t to capture the bottom end of the laptop market - it’s to give kids learning tools. If the laptop did become popular on the low end of the market, it becomes a target for theft…which is one of the reasons the machine is a brilliant shade of orange.

The one feature missing from the prototype I saw - the crank. It’s been clear - even before Kofi Annan broke the crank off an early laptop prototype - that a power-generating crank attached to the machine, like cranks are incorporated into FreePlay radios, might not work. Jim, who has designed the motherboard of the machine and has been focused on power consumption, helped me understand why.

156906265_83642237f0.jpg Contrary to what you learned in The Matrix, human beings are lousy at generating electric power. Small children are capable of generating between five and ten watts, for short periods of time. Since conventional laptops draw about 6 to 8 watts with their screens turned on, that’s a real problem for a child-powered laptop. The laptop needs to get much less power-hungry, and power generation needs to maximize the output a child is capable of. This means being ergonomically smart - use large muscle groups, and use human-generated motion efficiently. A crank attached to a laptop fails on both fronts - to crank a box, you fight the tendency of the laptop to move in the opposite direction of the crank. This means you either hold the laptop in one hand and crank with the other - and do work with both arms - or put the laptop on a table and run the good chance of it falling off a table. And cranks use small muscle groups - the triceps, hand and wrist muscles.

The solution is to make power generation an external add-on. The team is working on microgenerators that produce power using really big cranks - ones you might anchor with a hole in a table, and crank using your whole upper body. (Think Oompa Loompas in Wonka’s chocolate factory opening valves.) Other microgenerators use a pullcord, the sort I use to start my lawnmower, or pedal power. And other power sources, including solar panels, could plug into the input jack of the machine. The current prototype accepts voltage from -23 to +23v, which lets power hackers be very creative - and more than a little sloppy - in providing power to the device. Got a power block for a laptop? If you can make the connector fit, it will power the laptop.

The prototype I saw didn’t have a battery installed, but the team has decided to use nickel metal hydrid batteries rather than lithium ion. The rationale? Lithium is not very tolerant of voltage spikes - you need to regulate the power that enters the battery to prevent damage to it. Human-generated power is neccesarily spiky, so regulating that voltage means losing generated power. NiMH is less efficient than Li-Ion in terms of power transfer, but the ability to capture spiky power is worth the tradeoff… and MnH batteries are somewhat easier to dispose of in an environmentally conscious manner than Li-Ion.

The machine still needs to be miserly with power to be usable as a human-charged device. And this is where the team have worked some serious magic. When the machine is not in active use, it can act as a mesh node, helping maintain a connectivity cloud over a village or school while drawing only 0.5 watts - the wireless subsystem (a Marvell chip with 100kb of RAM) operates independently of the main processor and can forward packets with the CPU shut down. The machine draws a similar amount of power in ebook mode, using a black and white display. The display IC has a substantial frame buffer - this means it can store a black and white image and display it without any assistance from the CPU, again allowing the CPU to shut down and save power. With the processor and color screen in action, the laptop draws 2 to 2.5 watts. To get the power consumption so low, Jim and the team chose an older AMD chip - the Geode GX2 - rather than the newer chips, which burn more power. Using the GX2 chip and the version of Fedora Red Hat has been developing for the machine, many Linux packages run on the laptop with almost no porting effort.

The board itself is designed to encourage hardware hacking - the 500 prototype boards currently built come with a VGA jack soldered on. But production models will leave the jack leads etched on the board, though unpopulated. Want to turn a laptop into a device that can drive an external monitor? Solder one on. Also on the board but unpopulated will be connectors for additional RAM and flash memory, as well as a mini-PCI slot. A goal for the next iteration is a board with a wider pitch, which makes it easier to repair the board or to hand-solder additional connections. The case is designed to be easy to open and access the innards - this makes it easier to make Frankenmachines from dead machines, and also makes it easier to mass produce lots of these devices quickly.

The storage capacity is decidedly modest - 128MB of RAM, 512MB of flash memory instead of a hard drive. That 512MB has to hold the operating system and applications, as well as any documents. No one’s going to be loading a complete copy of Wikipedia onto this any time soon. That said, Walter showed me an early prototype of another orange box - a wire/wireless interface. Basically, it’s a wireless base station, designed to connect some of the laptop mesh nodes to an ethernet cable (presumably attached to a VSAT or some other device.) The box acts as a peer on the network, not a server, but has a larger storage capacity, so could serve as a document server as well as a web cacheing server. And you just might load Wikipedia -- or an edited, educational version of Wikipedia -- onto these boxes before distributing them.

156904702_b05b33b875.jpg The prototype running at the OLPC offices was running GNOME on top of Fedora, and looked very much like one expects a Linux desktop to look. This is not what most children will see when they turn on the machine, but it’s important to the designers that the machine be designed in layers, like an onion. (Or a parfait. Software designers like parfait.) For expert users who want to develop on the system, the laptop will ship with gcc, gtk, and the other stuff you need to build and distribute software. In addition, the software will include three development environments: Python, Javascript and Logowiki.

Logowiki, from what I’ve seen of it, is amazingly cool. It starts from a collection of wiki pages, like Wikipedia, and treats pages as computational objects. This means that the Wikipedia page on Logo would run Logo, letting you try out functions and move the turtle around. This opens up some amazing possibilities - wiki pages about physics that include programmable models that help you understand acceleration or momentum, for instance. And, indeed, you can come onto logowiki and play with little programs that build spirals or calculate Pi.

Wikis are important to the architecture of the software for another reason - they’re part of the subversive strategy behind the machine. The OLPC team won’t have control over what content is loaded onto the laptop in different countries - that’s the decision of individual education ministries. But by using wikis as a content management system - rather than, say, a PDF viewer - the team manages to sneak in the idea of user-generated content into schools. Perhaps most textbook pages will be protected in a wiki structure - wiki features like discussion pages will still exist, opening new possibilities for how kids interact with schoolbooks.

Walter explains that the fundamental design goals for the software of the project are to give students and teachers tools that leverage their ability to learn, their ability to be expressive and their ability to be social. A simple interface - more for discussion than a rough draft of any actual interface - shows some of these ideas. It’s a tabbed interface, like a web browser, which holds applications like a word processor in some of the windows. Another window holds a graphical chat program, designed to let a student type or draw messages to another student - the chat is aware of what other students are logged on and proximate to the machine. The goal is not to isolate students from one another, having them stare into their machines, but to encourage them to communicate through the machines.

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Comments

A very nice, detailed, and straight-forward run-down on the laptop.

People will STILL want to buy one, though. There could be a second market for them: Emergency service equipment.


Posted by: Stefan Jones on 7 Jun 06

The paragraphs about the crank show how difficult it is to design this thing: it's high-tech + for kids + in difficult circumstances + without power = great design challenge.

The question of the final price remains though. My bet is that if it costs more than US$50 per piece, very few people who need it will buy it. And under US$50 there's millions of perfectly working second-hand 486 PCs for sale.

Any news on the price setting?


Posted by: Lorenzo on 7 Jun 06

Remember . . . *people* won't be buying these. At least, the intended users won't be buying them. Their governments will, or charities will buy and donate them.

Those 486s are old enough not to have networking build in, and would require a lot more power than this thing will.

Another question, inspired by the thought of all of those obsolete 486s and Pentium Is and such: Will the little orange laptop be designed to be dis-assemble-able? That is, can it be easily recycled?

I could see a little make-work business where broken units are taken apart for recycling, and perhaps simple repairs made.

Not an academic question when their might be millions of them out there in a few years.


Posted by: Stefan Jones on 7 Jun 06

True, individuals may not be able to purchase the laptop, but some of us are holding out hope that by assembling a large enough block of willing consumers and taking responsibility for their reciept and distribution, OLPC may well sell these wonderful little machines to those willing to pay a $200 premium. Pledge your support at:

http://www.en-gb.pledgebank.com/100laptop


Posted by: jp on 7 Jun 06

Hopefully the flash memory is removeable so it can be upgraded as flash memory prices keep falling.


Posted by: Ender on 7 Jun 06

I support being able to buy them to subsidize units for the poor.

I think it would be a good idea to make the commercial units in another color.


Posted by: Stefan Jones on 7 Jun 06

I do think the value of these highly intelligently designed computers in the developed world will through market forces far exceed the $50-100 range. People will spend $300 on an mp3 player for their kids, so why not a valuable educational tool? As mentioned above, a good market price can be set that far exceeds production costs that can help subsidise the cost of the developing country purhases. If a westerner spends $250 for a very cool, portable, and functional educational device for their kids, this can help African kids get closer to using one.

I think another added benefit is that kids in both the developing and developed world would be using the same technology. This should not be seen as a lower class of computer, but a universally valuable tool. If kids around the world are using the same technology, much more creation and interaction is possible - especially when the software and hardware are open source. These devices should be sold at a market price to individual families, thus bringing down the bulk purchase price for governments. This should be a levelling of the opportunities available to children anywhere.


Posted by: Adam on 7 Jun 06

it might be possible to generate electricity trough dancing, as it is described at

http://www.hugg.com/story/Club-Double-Dee-Sustainable-Danceclub-1/

and even more fitting to this project:

http://www.hugg.com/story/Fueling-it-with-fun/


this may be an important part of the laptop for children project, creating an inviting ambience to move the body in a sustainable way


Posted by: anonymous on 8 Jun 06

Two very interesting bits. The moddable aspect is very interesting, particularly for first world sales to individuals to subsidize (and increase economy of scale). A first world version scaled for adults, with first world features (the VGA port, differnt battery options etc.) would prevent sales of the 'kiddy' model in the first world while employing the majority of the same parts. In the same fashion releasing the parts in kit form (with opensourced hardware) has the potential to drive some very creative designs.

The second issue is the "bubble pack" factor. Unlike just making a cheaper computer, the OLPC is making a true zero-maintainence computer which can simply be bought in a bubble pack, opened up, charged and used without aprreciable preconfiguration. This is a critical transition with regard to the pricing and marketing of computers. Maintaining and administrating a Two very interesting bits. The moddable aspect is very interesting, particularly for first world sales to individuals to subsidize (and increase economy of scale). A first world version scaled for adults, with first world features (the VGA port, differnt battery options etc.) would prevent sales of the 'kiddy' model in the first world while employing the majority of the same parts. In the same fashion releasing the parts in kit form (with opensourced hardware) has the potential to drive some very creative designs.

The second issue is the "bubble pack" factor. Unlike just making a cheaper computer, the OLPC is making a true zero-maintainence computer which can simply be bought in a bubble pack, opened up, charged and used without aprreciable preconfiguration. This is a critical transition with regard to the pricing and marketing of computers. Maintaining and administrating a <$100 impulse buy doesn't work. It's the transistion between SLRs and disposable cameras. And it really doesn't bode well for Microsoft's business model.

Lorenzo:
This is radically different than a used 486. The critical element of the OLPC is that it is a design using present generation technology to be cheap, compact and low power. The average used computer was designed to go all out and maximize it's performance for the time it was built.


Posted by: Monopole on 8 Jun 06

As I read the article the one paragraph that grabbed me was the one about the machine being hackable. When I first saw the machine I thought, what an interesting little controller this would make. Imagine the robotics projects one could do with something costing < $200.

Can't wait until they're widely available. I just might buy a few.


Posted by: Tony P. on 8 Jun 06

The one thing that keeps escaping me is what problem is the idea that these laptops are supposed to be for developing nations that can't afford a laptop, but aren't these nations missing an "information superhighway" infrastructure? What about just the regular infrastructure that goes hand-in-hand with computer technology: call-center support, tech-support, education centers? In general, WHAT will you use this laptop for in developing countries where most citizens are in a state of poverty and sanitation/jobs/education are paramount?

For poor rural/urban schools that already have a communication/educational/sanitation infrastructure in place it would be ideal though, that I do believe. Let's not forget though that just because you throw money at a problem, or in this case a laptop, that problems will fix themselves. Parents need to be taught on how to safeguard their children from internet predators/porn sites, teachers will still need to teach students on what can be accomplished with these machines, and teachers themselves will need to be taught on how to "teach" children on how to use them (poor rurual/urban schools don't have the most technically savvy of teachers).


Posted by: James W on 8 Jun 06

Why don't they make this available to the public for twice the price. If you buy one, a child somewhere also receives one at no cost.


Posted by: mark on 9 Jun 06

With regards to obsolete computers being useful there are generally a few problems with that.

First, machines no longer useful in the western world are in general expected to run the same software that they're no longer useful for when donated to some pc recycling project in say mozambique.

Second... Computer hardware (especially laptops) doesn't age gracefully. disks die, powersupplies fail, fans on heatsinks fail, crt's wear out. machines fill up with dust etc... A pc that's marginal in an airconditioned office on conditioned power, is likely to be useless with unstable power and 35c weather.

Third. eventually this stuff has to be discarded. New machines have gradually contained lower quanties of heavy metals toxic plastics, toxic battery formulations... At this point one probably wouldn't feel to bad about landfilling an RHOS (reduction of hazardous substances) complain pc whereas most 486 and pentium class machines (with the exception of some ibm and fujitsu machines that were designed for certain markets) are classified as toxic waste once they're parted out. These machines are hard to recycle responsibly even in the United States.

So what to do?

If you donate, send new machines, the lifespan of their utility will be much longer. New machines are less toxic that old ones, RHOS machines are even less so. Send LCDs not CRT's, yean not rhos lcd's contains heavy metals, but a lot less than CRT's...

A lot of people see donating old hardware as a philanthropic activity and it certainly can be, but in many cases it's just people dumping their waste in the third world. That's just evading responsiblity back home and it doesn't do the recipients of the "aid" any good.


Posted by: joel on 10 Jun 06

I want one - why not sell it to us for $200, with the extra going as a donation for another laptop in a developing country?


Posted by: Mathieu Tozer on 11 Jun 06

The 100.00 computer: There are other issues as well.

It will be absolutely essential for these laptops to be hooked to the Internet constantly. The most obvious reason is that the people who are responsible for feeding knowledge to the kids are going to have to distribute it via web services.

The dream of putting a computer in front of every child in school is finally being realized in several places in the US. There are a few unexpected issues. We know, for instance, that some administrators will not allow children to take them home because of first, theft and second, fear of misuse. We also know that the jury is out on what good they are from the standpoint of furthering a child's education in the core curriculum. By the way, the ones given to children in the US are right at $1,000.00 each.

Before anybody goes nuts over the usefulness of computers, let me say that computers and children are not the problem. Grownups are. Or rather our attitudes toward what computers are and are not.

In fact, the lack of well defined curriculum that is supported by network services is what is holding back the use of computers in our own schools. This is not to say that it does not exist at all. It does, but it is spotty and almost impossible to drag together into a coherent whole.

If you don't understand what I'm talking about go try MIT's open coursework. Here is a link to what MIT students have to deal with: MIT Open Course Ware
If you go to the reading list for a course, you will find links to lots of documents you can purchase for $35.00 each. There is free material too. But the point is that it isn't as easy as plugging in a computer even when you're MIT.

I work in a high school that has an average 9th grade class of around seven to eight hundred with the majority having a 4th grade reading level. It would be nice to say we sit them down in front of computers to teach them to read and write with highly automated systems requiring a minimum of teacher intervention so that meaningful interaction can be maximized and a rapid feedback cycle can be maintained.

The fact is that we use vertical applications installed on each computer in a labor intensive and site-license-hungry fashion. In order to do this, we have to use the newest computers available that cost around five hundred dollars each. If we wanted to host a school based distance education site such as Moodle, the school board's network is closed off due to fear of student hackers.

The fact is that what we do is most definitely not efficient or even particularly effective.


Posted by: Bob Calder on 13 Jun 06

I've looked quickly at the discussion about generating power, and saw a reference to using the "entire upper body." I immediately thought of treadle sewing machines, where the much more powerful legs are used. Would this be worth exploring?


Posted by: Elizabeth Bentley on 15 Jun 06

In re: power - a reconfigured bike could be used either by the hands or feet and have flow on effects to generate power for lights, radio, printing, 2 way etc. communication and information are the keys.

there could be reconfigured school desks where the students peddle?

of course the students will be burning fuel and without enough food one of the first things to go is the ability for the body to learn and retain knowledge. But hey maybe the computers can also teach permaculture?


Posted by: Scott on 20 Jun 06

this is a very nice site i mite tell my freinds


Posted by: john on 20 Jun 06

this is johns freind good job be back later


Posted by: nicholas on 20 Jun 06



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