A surprise in the mail

I received an email just before Easter that was a bit of a surprise. It was from laptop.org asking for my postal address. It said that they wanted to send me an XO! I’d nearly forgotten about the submission I wrote during LCA to the OLPC developers list. Jim Gettys encouraged those that thought they might be able to contribute practically to the project to write a submission. Three were given away at the conference.

Anyway, I feel pretty privileged to have received one about 2 weeks ago. Jeremy certainly has been pretty enthusiastic about it. It might even inspire to him to learn Python – most of the applications (called “activities” on the OLPC platform) are written in Python – at least as the glue to talk between the user interface and any hard-core logic.

There has certainly been a lot of thought put into the OLPC to bring it this far. As almost everyone has said, the screen is quite brilliant. Being LED backlit for darker rooms, and being able also be used without backlight in bright sunlight is, well brilliant. Having a built-in camera is quite important as well. They have a dual mode touchpad/graphics tablet that allows normal mouse cursor movement to be controlled with the finger, but also allows absolute drawing and tracing using a stylus (you have to fashion your own) on a larger tablet.

I have spent a fair bit of time understanding how the software is put together. While it is basically built from Fedora, I understand that a lot of things have been done to conserve power. It performs admirably well for having a 433MHz CPU, 128MB RAM and no swap. I have learned a little about how Sugar activities are packaged into bundles. I even loaded up a HelloWorld.Activity. The production XOs look like they are going to have the faster and less battery-hungry Geode LX (rather than the GX) as well as double the RAM.

I’m very keen to my family contribute to how it can be used to foster music amongst the kids that will use OLPC. Tamtam is a great application already – I would like to see how it can be better used for teaching music fundamentals. (Of which I only know a little – hence my very musical family are going to have to help me out.)

A colleague of mine who has quite a few OLPCs, mainly for testing the wireless stuff out, told of the absolutely clever analog input port the OLPC has. Not content with a regular AC microphone input, it can be configured in two other modes. One is a straight DC input that can measure between 0 and 3VDC. I immediately thought of kids in Africa being able to hack electronics together from old radios and the like and using the OLPC as a simple oscilloscope or voltmeter. The other analog input puts 2.5V and allows you to measure across this. This means a simple potentiometer can be read. Great for all sorts of science experiments, but also a good way of providing another interface to control the Tamtam musical instruments.

Unfortunately I have been all too busy to do much with it. Anyway it looks like I’m going to have to be a bit of an unofficial local ambassador for the project. As soon as I mentioned to SCLUG that I had one, they wanted me to speak at the next meeting. And I let it drop to the SLUG president as well, so he has asked me to speak at their next meeting.

Oh, and I am writing this post with my OLPC XO of course!