[Athen] FW: $12 Computer: Playpower Wants to Save the World 8 Bits
at a Time
ron at altformatsolutions.com
Wed Mar 11 13:59:06 PDT 2009
Thought you all might enjoy this
SAN JOSE, California — The Apple II computer is long gone, but its heart beats on in the developing world, where 8-bit computers sell for as little as $12.
Now, computer scientists see a way of using those ubiquitous, primitive PCs to help kids learn — by playing games.
"It is about bringing affordable computer learning to the 90 percent of learners in the world who can't afford a $1,000 or even a $100 computer," says Derek Lomas, who is leading the Playpower.org <http://playpower.org/> team.
The project, first talked about last year, is gathering steam. Lomas and his partners are talking to manufacturing partners in China to produce the $12 systems, which are based on cheap computers already sold throughout the developing world. Some of the computers will be sold through Maker Shed, the e-commerce arm of Make magazine in the United States, while the rest will be distributed through non-profit partners in developing countries. And the Playpower team has collaborated with other groups in the 8-bit computer hacking community to help build educational software for the computers.
The Playpower team touted its ambitious project with a high-energy presentation in front of a standing-room-only hotel conference room at ETech 2009 in San Jose. While 8-bit musician Jordan Gray improvised funky digital beats on a PSP, the screen displayed a rapid-fire series of images showing photographs of poor children, screenshots from old 8-bit games like Oregon Trail and relevant stats ("More than 4 billion people earn less than $3,000 per year").
The $12 computing system itself defies conventional expectations of what a computer today should be. The soul of the Apple II and a geek microprocessor favorite of the 1970s, the 8-bit 6502 processor is the heart of these computers. It is small enough to be contained within a full-size keyboard and sold for mere dollars. The keyboard also has a slot for game cartridges, and is usually sold with a mouse and two game controllers. Many of these systems are currently on sale as "TV computers" in Bombay, Bangalore and Nicaragua. They are often packaged in boxes emblazoned with unlicensed cartoon art (Mario, Spiderman) and misspelled English ("Lerrn compiters the fun way!") and are bundled with games that would likely be copyright violations in the United States. And like the early home computers sold in the United States, they plug into a TV screen for display.
Although these computers are currently aimed at the gaming market, Playpower.org envisions using them to deliver educational software and learning games to children in developing countries.
The project will run on machines that are within the reach for millions of families that make less than $3,000 a year, say Lomas and his partners, Jeremy Douglass and Daniel Rehn, all students at the University of California at San Diego.
It's an ambitious project and one that requires just a tad of youthful optimism to pull it off. Dodge a pothole in China or India and you are likely to bump into the carcass of yet another ambitious attempt to bring low-cost computing to the developing world. The MIT Media Lab-backed One Laptop <http://laptop.org/en/> Per Child project planned to bring $100 computers to those in need. That project has never been <http://blog.wired.com/business/2008/01/intel-breaks-up.html> able to achieve that price point, although OLPC cofounder Mary Lou Jepsen said Tuesday here that more than a million of the project's XO laptops had been shipped to kids in more than 30 countries. Recently, Indian government officials made an announcement of a $10 "computer" that proved to <http://blog.wired.com/gadgets/2009/02/indias-10-lapto.html> be a dud.
"The $100 laptop does a lot of things that makes it expensive, such as its screen, own power system and a faster processor," says Lomas.
But Playpower.org offers something different. The group hasn't created a new machine. Instead it builds on something that already exists. Lomas first saw one of these inexpensive 8-bit computer at a computer market in Mumbai where he was on an internship.
"There are many manufacturers in India and China that make them since the chip went off patent a few years ago," says Lomas who brought the $12 computer back to the United States. "And while it may not be powerful enough to run YouTube or surf the internet at high speed, it is great for educational games and related ideas."
For most Americans, if the 8-bit processor sounds like a blast from the past, it is. The 8-bit 6502 chip technology, along with the Zilog z80, kicked off the U.S. home-computing revolution, aided in part by enthusiast organizations such as the Homebrew <http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2009/03/dayintech_0305> Computer Club.
Early 6502 home computers included the Apple II, the BBC Micro and the Commodore PET. All of them included the Basic programming language.
The 8-bit machines faded away in the United States to be replaced by the Pentiums and Core2Duo processors. But in China and many parts of Asia, the chips are still produced, to the tune of more than a million chips a year, estimates Lomas. And they are very cheap.
"Rather than figure out how we can create a cultural niche for a $10 computer, we thought: Let's identify the systems that are affordable and in demand, and put them to work," says Jeremy Douglass, co-founder of Playpower.org.
The games that the Playpower.org project is developing for the 8-bit computer will teach users basic skills such as English and typing. And they are working on some fun ideas.
Playpower.org has collaborated with 8BitPeoples <http://www.8bitpeoples.com/> , a collective of artists focused on applying the 8-bit aesthetic to games and music, says Rehn. The collective provides music that can be used in Playpower's games, for instance.
Creating software and games for the $12, 8-bit computer will be easy, says Lomas. After all, it's something even fifth graders can do, sbecause the Basic programming language remains part of the elementary school curriculum in many schools in China and India.
(With additional reporting from Dylan Tweney)
Photos: Top -- Jeremy Douglass, Derek Lomas and Daniel Rehn jam with collaborator and 8-bit musician Jordan Gray (second from the right) while holding 8-bit computers. Bottom -- Douglass and Lomas chat with Visicalc cofounder Bob Frankston. Photos by Dylan Tweney / Wired.com
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