Archive for July, 2010

books to all

July 28, 2010

In my last post, I noted how the Humane Reader was rethinking the basic design of an ebook reader, with an emphasis on third-world affordability and ubiquitous access. A recent study in Ghana has shown that even using the relatively expensive Amazon Kindle bookreader, ebooks are both cheaper and more effective at spreading literacy and information than paper books. (A fairly predictable result, since the marginal cost of an ebook is a lot lower than that of a paper book, and the number of available books is huge.) is now looking into deploying ebook readers on a larger scale, relying on existing mobile-phone-oriented infrastructure to charge the devices and download books.

the microcomputer reborn

July 17, 2010

Braddock Gaskill has an interesting project that seems to be asking “just how much can you strip a computer down, and still have it be useful to people?”

This sort of stripped-down device is nothing new in the hobbyist realm, but Gaskill’s Humane Reader and Humane PC have – like Negroponte’s OLPC before them – the goal of being simultaneously interesting to hackers, and useful to people in the developing world.

The Humane Reader is a rethinking of the ebook reader, with an emphasis on getting information to where it’s otherwise unavailable. This is in some ways the anti-Kindle; it is in sheer aesthetic and usability terms clunkier than anything currently available in the first world, up to and including reading pdfs while sitting at your desktop pc. The genius of the Humane Reader’s approach, though, is how well it works with things people already have. It needs no internet connection; its library is distributed on a low-cost SD card. It has no screen – a huge cost saving; the device is expected to cost an incredible $20 – being designed instead to plug into a standard TV set. Unlike the OLPC, it does just one, highly focused thing, which bodes very well for the price actually being able to be kept low. And it already has people excited – as the comment from an IntraHealth worker shows, access to information is a nigh-universal need.

The Humane PC is both more and less exciting than the Humane Reader. More exciting in the sense that it’s a really cool hobbyist device, and I can definitely see myself getting one. It also has massive educational potential; a high school lab with a good teacher and a few Humane PCs could change some kid’s life. In its currently proposed incarnation, though, I have a hard time seeing much uptake in the developing world. Schools will (rightly or wrongly) see it as hopelessly niche and underpowered, something that will not provide any real benefit to students in today’s world. And for a home user, this seems much more like an extension of the Arduino than a reincarnation of the magical 8-bit computers of my youth. The emphasis is more on hardware hacking and very basic text-to-video-display applications than on kid-friendliness and novice-appeal. I’d be delighted to be proven wrong[1], but I think the entry barrier to this will simply be too high for a home user. My money’s still on the OLPC, or one of its spiritual descendants, in this particular race.

[1] or, indeed, corrected if I’ve misunderstood the capabilities of the device

smartphone-based vision tester

July 5, 2010

The nice thing about computers is that they’re general purpose devices. The nice thing about smartphones is that they’re increasingly ubiquitous, increasingly cheap, portable general-purpose devices. Just add imagination.

The latest example of smartphone-based ingenuity is a neat little $2 box from MIT which, combined with an Android-based smartphone and their associated application, makes a cheap substitute for far more expensive and bulky optometric equipment.

It’s still far from perfect – as one dissenter notes in the comments

This is going to be a disaster. I am in my second year of Optometry school and I know how bad this is. The reason why is because it ONLY fixes your refraction! It fails to adjust your eye’s accommodation and bilateral fixation…..TRUST ME….you will end up with MORE EXPENSIVE procedures in the future if you rely on this application…

but it’s an excellent example of what cheap, portable computers are making possible.

Also, something I’d have thought was obvious, but since several people evidently miss the point and choose instead to sneer at the idea of “villagers who can’t afford a visit to an optometrist, but can afford a smartphone”: you don’t need every villager to have an Android phone; you just need to fill in the equipment gap for village clinics that can’t afford expensive computerised optometry devices.

solar powered lamp

July 3, 2010

No, really. All jokes apart, there are large parts of the developing world that have no access to electricity, and their most common light source, the kerosene lamp, is a major source of cumulative lung damage. D.light Design has just won an Ashden Award for its work in developing and marketing a cheap, reliable solar powered lantern that will, they hope, “do to kerosene what mobile phones did to letters”.