Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Playing with the OLPC XO Laptop and the museum possibilities

January 7th, 2008 by Seb Chan

I ordered an OLPC laptop under the ‘Give One Get One’ programme and via a friend in the US it arrived last week. My 3 year old has been having a great time playing with the TamTam Mini application, a very simple graphical sound triggering noise maker; the Paint application; a memory match game; and the inbuilt camera.

The Sugar GUI has been getting mixed reviews but in the hands of a 3 year old who hasn’t been indoctrinated into the aesthetics and usage patterns of Windows or OSX, it is seems logical, or at least sensible enough.

The wireless networking is excellent with great range and quick pickup. However this is where the gripes, or shall we say, ‘quirks’ start. You would think that the distance a ‘network’ icon was from your central OLPC icon is would indicate signal strength or proximity but in fact it is just random. Obviously there aren’t many of these laptops in Sydney, let alone Australia (yet!), so trying out the Mesh networking hasn’t yet been possible.

The bundled web browser is absolutely awful and slow. In fact until I installed a special build of Opera I was convinced that the laptop would be all but useless for Flash-based sites (which tend to be the ones that little kids actually want to start with). Flash support on the bundled browser works but it delivers things like Pingu at about 1 frame per second and forget about Youtube. Fortunately the support wiki is fantastic and a few handy Terminal commands and Opera had rectified the situation.

The screen of the OLPC can be swivelled around to turn the machine into a tablet e-book reader. A button on the screen allows you to rotate the screen through 90 degree steps which is nice too. Unfortunately using the bundled browser makes for a slow experience.

The final quirk is touchpad. Maybe it is a hardware fault but I have had to recalibrate it at least twice each session (which is fortunately done by holding down 4 keys simultaneously). Plugging in an external USB mouse makes it better.

But more of the good. The way Sugar stores your work is in a diary-like manner. Instead of ‘saving’ everything is just auto-saved by date and time. This allows you or an educator to look back over project work and see its development over time – this is a very nice feature that operates the same across all the bundled applications (called ‘Activities). The built in video camera is also remarkably good and is certainly usable for low level video conferencing given the right bandwidth.

So, having one of these to play with is fascinating. The potential applications within a museum environment are huge. Their size and the Mesh networking makes them attractive – they are remarkably small and the ability to connect them to each other automatically without the presence of an external wireless network opens up plenty of possibilities.

It would be very possible send students out in the field with a clutch of these tiny, robust machines to gather data, wirelessly commnunicate with each other, capture images, collaboratively write reports and then return to a lab to collate and present the results. The Sugar UI is suitably intuitive enough to make the learning curve of a properly set up machine easy, and there is little to attract the inevitable hacking and tomfoolery that occurs when students are plonked down in front of a Windows box.

But the question is, will these machines ever become available to museums to use or experiment in this manner?

Tags: 5 Comments

  • I’m curious to know about reading on the XO when it is in ebook mode. Is the screen as good as e-ink? Is the backlight completely off? I’ve just ordered a Sony Reader from the US but I am starting to think that I should have got one of these.

  • As an e-book reader in the current state it is at best just adequate. The screen is bright and very readable, the rotation button is excellent but if you are doing things with PDFs then you are going to need to open up or use a mouse to get to the zoom tools (which defeats the purpose if you are in the park or on public transport!)

    The other thing is, that despite rotating the screen, the buttons used to scroll (4 way controller) don’t rotate as you would expect.

    But remember that this is with the first public release of the OS. Apparently Update 2 is going to fix a lot of things.

    Still, this is a device with an e-book capability, not a dedicated e-book reader. I’d use the example of a mobile phone that can play MP3s not being as usable as, say, a dedicated MP3 player.

  • “But the question is, will these machines ever become available to museums to use or experiment in this manner?”

    The project is designed to give laptops to children which they can then own, so perhaps isn’t best suited to the kind of loan scheme you might run in a museum. However the technology (low power, innovative screen, etc) is bound to filter down into other devices which might be more appropriate.

    It’s interesting to think about how museums might best accommodate the children who use these kinds of devices – both in the museum environment, and online – though. Perhaps we should be designing collaborative Activities for the XO, and providing free wi-fi in our museums?

  • I received my XO laptop this week. I had planned to get it over Christmas while I was in the States, but it didn’t arrive. I saw someone on the plane returning to Sydney with an XO laptop. I haven’t yet found a ‘flight’ mode for the laptop, but it would be fun to have on a flight – especially if the mesh network was working.

    I haven’t had a go with any of the mesh networking yet. I’ve thought about running an emulator image on another computer and seeing if that works.

    I’ve been real happy with the display, web cam, and audio. I find the interface to be quite slow, even for things like terminal. I haven’t tried installing Opera, but I’ll give that a go. SimCity runs well, but I found the fonts to be a little too small. ‘Activities’ designed for the XO have proper font sizes, but the high res screen make other apps too tiny by default.

  • pilar barbeira