Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Designers on quest to build $12 computer

By Jerry Kronenberg
Monday, August 4, 2008

Photo by Jess Gately

Derek Lomas, Jesse Austin-Breneman and other designers want to create a computer that Third World residents can buy for less than you probably spend on lunch.

“We see this as a model that could increase economic opportunities for people in developing countries,” said Lomas, part of a team that’s trying to develop a $12 computer at this month’s MIT International Development Design Summit. “If you just know how to type, that can be the difference between earning $1 an hour instead of $1 a day.”

MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte has been working since 2005 to provide $100 laptops to Third World kids, but Lomas and his colleagues want to knock the price down even further. They aim to build a stripped down computer-like device for about one-tenth of what Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child project is creating.

A $12 computer of sorts - a cheap keyboard and Nintendo-like console - already exists in India, where people hook the devices to home TVs to run simple games and programs. But Lomas, an American graduate student who stumbled across the computers in Bangalore while on an internship last summer, hit on the idea of upgrading the devices’ 1980s-era technology.

He and others at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology symposium hope to soup up the systems - which are based on old Apple II computers - with rudimentary Web access and more.
“My generation all had Apple IIs that we learned to type and play games on,” the 27-year-old said. “If we can get buy-in from programmers, we can develop these devices and give (Third World) schools Apple II computer labs like the ones I grew up with.”

A six-member team at the MIT conference is working on writing improved programs and hooking the devices to the Web through cell phones. The group also wants to add memory chips - which the devices currently lack - to allow users to write and store their own programs.

Team members have already recruited Apple II enthusiasts to help with the programming.
The group has also contacted an Indian nonprofit that expressed interest in using the devices to train village “micro-loan” officers.

Also, the team’s foreign members - who hail from Brazil, Ghana and India - plan to do market research on the souped-up devices back home.

“We think we can develop a really good educational tool that could give kids exposure to keyboards, typing and mouse usage at an early age,” said Austin-Breneman, a 25-year-old MIT graduate and a mechanical engineer.

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