Autodesk is a customer of the international One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program. As such we have a few of these OLPC machines in our Autodesk Labs offices. Software Architect, Ben Cochran, filed this report.
I must admit that last fall, when I learned that Yves Behar would be the keynote speaker for the 2007 Autodesk University General Session, I did not recognize the name. I had heard about One Lap Top per Child and the Jawbone Bluetooth headset, but at the time I had given them little thought. So I asked around and started looking into what the big deal was with OLPC, Jawbone, and other Yves Behar designs. People said he designs for both form and function. I had heard of the form versus function debate before and was of the opinion that most things in life are designed for form or function but rarely both. My wife (a Graphic Designer) and I frequently discuss if form or function is more important, so I bought her a Jawbone. At first she was also skeptical, as she had Bluetooth headsets before and did not like them. This one was different. It is better than the others. It has better noise reduction, better sound quality, is more comfortable and looks better than other headsets. It has both form and function.
Now that my curiosity had been stirred, I wanted to know more about the OLPC. A few weeks before AU 07, Brian Mathews (Autodesk Labs VP and my boss) purchased and received an OLPC. This was the first time I had seen one. It appealed to me from the start. Instead of the black or silver typical laptop, the OLPC looked more like a learning tool with its fun green and white colors. When you pick it up, it is easy to hold in your hand. The screen is bright and clear. Needless to say it sparked my interest. After Brian played with his new OLPC for a short time he handed it to me to play with. One of the first things I noticed was its incredible wireless capabilities. It has a great range and easily connects to existing networks. Additionally, when the computer starts up it creates a mesh network. This is an ad hoc network with other OLPC’s, used for sharing and collaborating. The next thing that I realized was that I could not type on the OLPC. The keys on the waterproof keyboard were simply too small for my fingers. In true Behar fashion, clearly this computer was designed for children. After all, it's not OLPA (Adult).
Being a Software Engineer, the next thing I did after trying a few apps was move to the terminal. OLPC is built on Linux, and I was very interested in how much of the Linux environment was hidden or exposed. I was pleasantly surprised to find that while no knowledge of Linux is needed to run and operate the OLPC, for the user that wants to learn to use the Linux Bash shell, it is available. After playing for a little more than an hour I needed to return the OLPC to Brian and return to work. At this time I was surprised to learn that Autodesk Labs was going to receive several of the OLPC machines in a few months. After waiting for many months for the Labs OLPC machines, several of them arrived. Needless to say this was not a productive day (at least not in the traditional sense). Within less than 30 minutes, two Labs engineers had updated their OLPC with the latest system updates, three mesh networks had been created, several documents had been shared in joint writing sessions, a (bad) song was composed, a joint project to write a python program was started, and several graphically recursive programs that generate art by moving a turtle around the screen had been developed. That was just the first 30 minutes. The team also found several problems. Some that have been fixed by system updates, for example, plugging a USB keyboard and mouse in did not always work until the system updates had been applied. Saving work can also be a problem. Most applications have a keep button that should record the users activities into the journal. While I always see the entry in the journal I cannot always get back to my saved state. I am sure these problems will be addressed in future updates. In a very short time our small group of engineers explored, writing, sharing, music, programming, and art. Next, I wanted to see how children experience the OLPC. I took the OLPC home.... (to be continued)
More links on OLPC:
Thanks Ben. Experiencing hardware and software in its simplest form is alive in the lab.