Sydney OLPC techfest

On Sunday 1st June Riverview College hosted the first OLPC Australia Techfest. Its aim to stimulate interest in supporting the OLPC project in this region from a technical point of view was well met. We had about 50 or so delegates. The two main presenters were Martin Langhoff and Joel Stanley. Martin has primary responsibility for the XS, the School Server. Joel has been an intern with OLPC in Boston last year, and has intimate knowledge of XO innards. There was a good mixture of delegates, those that have had quite a bit of exposure to the project, and those only learning. There were a few people interested in working on the content and documentation which was great to see. There is a large general open-source community in Australia, so I feel sure given a little bit of a push there is likely to be strong interest in supporting this project in the region. While the technology itself is becoming quite mature, with many 100s of 1000s of machines heading to the field as we speak, regional customisation support for local deployments is going to needed. OLPC Australia sees its “target market” as not only Australia and New Zealand, but also the large number of Pacific nations. I would certainly like to be involved in deployments, assuming I can set aside the time and money for this.

Martin LanghoffJoel Stanley

OLPC spruiking

As soon as people found out I had an OLPC XO it seemed I became flavour of the month. – they all wanted to see it. My first engagement was the monthly talk at SLUG. I prepared 15 slides for a presentation that introduced the mission of the project, a few photos from a pilot in Nigeria, and a walkthrough of the hardware and software components. I then did a demo using the Build 385 qemu image as well as the XO itself. Anyway I got a lot of interaction, and lots of people wanting to have a play. Most were pretty supportive of the project. One though didn’t think they would last very long and would soon be wrecked by the kids not knowing the value of that. While I didn’t think that rang true, I didn’t have much to back my defence at the time.

That changed today however. A while ago I volunteered to spend some time on the Linux Australia stand at CeBIT. Anyway, as I now had an XO I was encouraged to bring that along. Here it also got a lot of interest. Quite a few people had heard of the project, but there still was a lot that hadn’t. What was really funny was that every second person wanted to know what happened the wind-up handle! (Which of course, disappeared from the design when it was found that it put too much stress on the unit, and also was difficult for young kids to use). I
managed to pretty well talk myself hoarse – I certainly enjoyed the spruiking.

What also was very encouraging was talking to a Nigerian fellow who currently lives in New Zealand. I queried him about the concept that the kids would wreck the machines. He said it would be absolutely the opposite! These kids would guard their machines with the life – particular if they have little else of value. He spoke of seeing kids that had exercise books that they would write on school with a pencil. Then, when the term or subject was finished they would diligently erase their writing eventually resulting in books almost worn thin. So I really do think in general they would be well looked after.

My 3rd engagement should be a little more laid back — to the smaller gathering at this month’s SCLUG meeting.

A surprise in the mail

I received an email just before Easter that was a bit of a surprise. It was from 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!