the microcomputer reborn

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

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5 Responses to “the microcomputer reborn”

  1. SereneCooking Says:

    Gosh, I kinda want a Humane Reader.

    • martindemello Says:

      sweet device, isn’t it? 🙂 however, i fear a tv wouldn’t really be a good reading experience once you were used to the greater crispness of a monitor

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