The XO Laptop: It’s the Software, Stupid

(Page 2 of 3)

that they’re using the wrong metric. It doesn’t matter whether it’s got a faster or slower boot time than this or that machine. Are the kids learning? That’s the only metric that matters.”

And by that metric, it’s probably too early to render a verdict, since the XO went into mass production less than three months ago and only about a quarter-million of the devices have shipped so far. But as the Uruguyuan birthing video demonstrates, students are already putting the XO’s media-creation tools to creative use, bearing out at least one of the OLPC’s five core principles—that of connection, the idea that children should be able to use the XO to express themselves in communication with one another and with the larger world via the Internet. (The other four principles are that every child should have his or her own laptop, that students should be able to own the laptops and take them home after class, that the program should focus on elementary-school students, and that all of the software and systems on the machine should be free and open-source.)

Bender doesn’t expect the XO to give rise to legions of young YouTube-posting videographers; for one thing, broadband connectivity is in scarce supply in the rural, developing regions where OLPC has focused its distribution efforts. But students can still use the laptop to connect with one another, via the machines’ built-in Wi-Fi mesh networking system. In fact, when you turn on the XO, the first thing you see isn’t a list of applications—it’s a menu leading to a map of the other people using XO’s in the neighborhood, wirelessly speaking.

Visualizing the Mesh Network on the XO Laptop“We knew that Internet bandwidth was going to be available but expensive, so that having all these kids go off to MySpace [to do their networking] wasn’t necessarily viable,” says Bender. “We needed to capture that collaboration and bring it closer. So we thought, why not just make collaboration a seminal part of the operating system? Instead of having collaboration be something that happens out there—something where you graft network awareness onto other activities—we said, let’s have it be something that’s always part of what you do. So we put the notion of the presence of other people in the local area network directly into the interface.”

Collaboration is also a central theme in many of the applications Bender’s team chose to include in Sugar. The best-developed example so far, Bender says, is the XO’s music software suite. Working with Jean Piché, a composer and music producer who teaches electroacoustic composition at the University of Montreal, Bender’s team first assembled a simple application called TamTam that allows students to create music by choosing from hundreds of synthesized sounds, then pounding the keys. “From there you go to TamTam Jam,” says Bender. “It’s network-savvy, and it will synchronize with other laptops, so you can turn on rhythms, access multiple instruments at once, and build rich musical structures.” Then there’s TamTam Edit, a sequencing and composition tool that lets students transplant tracks from one composition into another over the network, and TamTam synthLab, which lets them invent new sounds—for example, by applying random number generators to a library of recorded waveforms.

“But wait, there’s more,” Bender says. From synthLab, students can drill down into Csound, a musical scripting language invented by Barry Vercoe at the MIT Media Lab that’s so powerful that film-score composers use it to create special musical effects. “So you go from a tool that a two-year-old can immediately start using to the same tools they use in Hollywood,” says Bender. “Not every kid is going to be a Csound hacker, but there is this opportunity for growth, exploration, invention, expression, sharing, and critique that is part of everything we do.”

Hang out at the foundation very long, in fact, and you’ll realize that Bender, Cavallo, Negroponte, and their colleagues are utterly sincere when they say … Next Page »

Single Page Currently on Page: 1 2 3 previous page

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

Trending on Xconomy