Tag Archives: daydreaming

Nailed It! Keyboard-Less OLPC XO (Update)

It’s a strange feeling that I get fairly frequently. I dream up some tech “thing” (hardward device, software tool, service) and it’s unveiled shortly thereafter. At the risk of sounding boastful, it feels as if I have my pulse on the “industry.”

Of course, there are other explanations. One is that I dream up so many things that some of them are bound to come through at some point. Another is that I may have internalized some information about those products ready to be unveiled from some source and that I forget that I got this information. Or maybe what I’m dreaming up is so obvious that just everybody predicted it.

Still, it’s a strange feeling. I feel prescient.

Latest case in point, the OLPC’s XOXO (XO-2), will be keyboard-less, just as I dreamt about on another blog and just as I described here, yesterday. As could be expected, some people are already expressing negative opinions about the keyboard-less design. Maybe they’re just surprised. But I can’t help but think that designing the device without a hardware keyboard is an important step toward radically creative thinking. Several aspects of the XO-1 were very innovative and could be described as “creative solutions to important problems.” But the shift to a keyboard-free device is closer to “creating a new device category.” Of course I’m biased but I do think this new device category can have game-changing implications. The fact that the device is much smaller and more specifically designed as an eBook also goes with this “new device category” idea. At the risk of belabouring the point, the XOXO is almost exactly what I had in mind last night as “handheld for the rest of us.”

I’m also glad that this radical shift in design explicitly relates to cultural awareness. What I mean is, the OLPC team is actually saying that the double-screen will be used for diverse (on-screen) “keyboards.” If I hadn’t thought of the same thing myself, I would call it “genius!” 🙂

Now, to go back to the notion of feeling eerily prescient. I can wash the feeling away by myself. I’ve written a number of things about possible features for the OLPC or other devices and the lack of keyboard seems to be the only one which stuck. In fact, although I did think about a Nintendo-like dual-screen system at several points, I didn’t write it down as a prediction or even a part of my wishlist.

Keyboard-less devices are rather common, these days. Apart from the Nintendo DS and DS Lite that people are using as a point of comparison for the XOXO, there are several (multi-)touch based devices out there which may have served as inspiration for both the OLPC redesign and my own dream. In fact, some rumours seem to indicate that Apple might release a dual-screen portable at some point, maybe with double-sided panels. I, for one, would say that such a design would make the long-rumoured Apple tablet much more practical. In other words: I wasn’t prescient, in the OLPC case, I just dreamt up what was the most logical next step.

Also, it’s possible that I read or heard something which made me think specifically of a keyboard-less OLPC. I kind of doubt it and I don’t really want to look for such an occurrence, but now that I know that it was already planned, I admit that I may have seen some mention of the keyboard-less design.

[Edit, May 21, 1:20 a.m.: Apparently, the International Herald Tribune had already published a preview of the device by Friday, May 16. I’m pretty sure I had seen nothing of that IHT preview and I really don’t think I was able to see any description of a dual-screen XO by the time I posted my blog entry and other comments about a keyboard-less XO. But the fact that it was, somehow, in the open makes me more suspicious of my own intuitions.]

Sheesh!

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Handhelds for the Rest of Us?

Ok, it probably shouldn’t become part of my habits but this is another repost of a blog comment motivated by the OLPC XO.

This time, it’s a reply to Niti Bhan’s enthusiastic blogpost about the eeePC: Perspective 2.0: The little eeePC that could has become the real “iPod” of personal computing

This time, I’m heavily editing my comments. So it’s less of a repost than a new blogpost. In some ways, it’s partly a follow-up to my “Ultimate Handheld Device” post (which ended up focusing on spatial positioning).

Given the OLPC context, the angle here is, hopefully, a culturally aware version of “a handheld device for the rest of us.”

Here goes…

I think there’s room in the World for a device category more similar to handhelds than to subnotebooks. Let’s call it “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU). Something between a cellphone, a portable gaming console, a portable media player, and a personal digital assistant. Handheld devices exist which cover most of these features/applications, but I’m mostly using this categorization to think about the future of handhelds in a globalised World.

The “new” device category could serve as the inspiration for a follow-up to the OLPC project. One thing about which I keep thinking, in relation to the “OLPC” project, is that the ‘L’ part was too restrictive. Sure, laptops can be great tools for students, especially if these students are used to (or need to be trained in) working with and typing long-form text. But I don’t think that laptops represent the most “disruptive technology” around. If we think about their global penetration and widespread impact, cellphones are much closer to the leapfrog effect about which we all have been writing.

So, why not just talk about a cellphone or smartphone? Well, I’m trying to think both more broadly and more specifically. Cellphones are already helping people empower themselves. The next step might to add selected features which bring them closer to the OLPC dream. Also, since cellphones are widely distributed already, I think it’s important to think about devices which may complement cellphones. I have some ideas about non-handheld tools which could make cellphones even more relevant in people’s lives. But they will have to wait for another blogpost.

So, to put it simply, “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU) are somewhere between the OLPC XO-1 and Apple’s original iPhone, in terms of features. In terms of prices, I dream that it could be closer to that of basic cellphones which are in the hands of so many people across the globe. I don’t know what that price may be but I heard things which sounded like a third of the price the OLPC originally had in mind (so, a sixth of the current price). Sure, it may take a while before such a low cost can be reached. But I actually don’t think we’re in a hurry.

I guess I’m just thinking of the electronics (and global) version of the Ford T. With more solidarity in mind. And cultural awareness.

Google’s Open Handset Alliance (OHA) may produce something more appropriate to “global contexts” than Apple’s iPhone. In comparison with Apple’s iPhone, devices developed by the OHA could be better adapted to the cultural, climatic, and economic conditions of those people who don’t have easy access to the kind of computers “we” take for granted. At the very least, the OHA has good representation on at least three continents and, like the old OLPC project, the OHA is officially dedicated to openness.

I actually care fairly little about which teams will develop devices in this category. In fact, I hope that new manufacturers will spring up in some local communities and that major manufacturers will pay attention.

I don’t care about who does it, I’m mostly interested in what the devices will make possible. Learning, broadly speaking. Communicating, in different ways. Empowering themselves, generally.

One thing I have in mind, and which deviates from the OLPC mission, is that there should be appropriate handheld devices for all age-ranges. I do understand the focus on 6-12 year-olds the old OLPC had. But I don’t think it’s very productive to only sell devices to that age-range. Especially not in those parts of the world (i.e., almost anywhere) where generation gaps don’t imply that children are isolated from adults. In fact, as an anthropologist, I react rather strongly to the thought that children should be the exclusive target of a project meant to empower people. But I digress, as always.

I don’t tend to be a feature-freak but I have been thinking about the main features the prototypical device in this category should have. It’s not a rigid set of guidelines. It’s just a way to think out loud about technology’s integration in human life.

The OS and GUI, which seem like major advantages of the eeePC, could certainly be of the mobile/handheld type instead of the desktop/laptop type. The usual suspects: Symbian, NewtonOS, Android, Zune, PalmOS, Cocoa Touch, embedded Linux, Playstation Portable, WindowsCE, and Nintendo DS. At a certain level of abstraction, there are so many commonalities between all of these that it doesn’t seem very efficient to invent a completely new GUI/OS “paradigm,” like OLPC’s Sugar was apparently trying to do.

The HftRoU require some form of networking or wireless connectivity feature. WiFi (802.11*), GSM, UMTS, WiMAX, Bluetooth… Doesn’t need to be extremely fast, but it should be flexible and it absolutely cannot be cost-prohibitive. IP might make much more sense than, say, SMS/MMS, but a lot can be done with any kind of data transmission between devices. XO-style mesh networking could be a very interesting option. As VoIP has proven, voice can efficiently be transmitted as data so “voice networks” aren’t necessary.

My sense is that a multitouch interface with an accelerometer would be extremely effective. Yes, I’m thinking of Apple’s Touch devices and MacBooks. As well as about the Microsoft Surface, and Jeff Han’s Perceptive Pixel. One thing all of these have shown is how “intuitive” it can be to interact with a machine using gestures. Haptic feedback could also be useful but I’m not convinced it’s “there yet.”

I’m really not sure a keyboard is very important. In fact, I think that keyboard-focused laptops and tablets are the wrong basis for thinking about “handhelds for the rest of us.” Bear in mind that I’m not thinking about devices for would-be office workers or even programmers. I’m thinking about the broadest user base you can imagine. “The Rest of Us” in the sense of, those not already using computers very directly. And that user base isn’t that invested in (or committed to) touch-typing. Even people who are very literate don’t tend to be extremely efficient typists. If we think about global literacy rates, typing might be one thing which needs to be leapfrogged. After all, a cellphone keypad can be quite effective in some hands and there are several other ways to input text, especially if typing isn’t too ingrained in you. Furthermore, keyboards aren’t that convenient in multilingual contexts (i.e., in most parts of the world). I say: avoid the keyboard altogether, make it available as an option, or use a virtual one. People will complain. But it’s a necessary step.

If the device is to be used for voice communication, some audio support is absolutely required. Even if voice communication isn’t part of it (and I’m not completely convinced it’s the one required feature), audio is very useful, IMHO (I’m an aural guy). In some parts of the world, speakers are much favoured over headphones or headsets. But I personally wish that at least some HftRoU could have external audio inputs/outputs. Maybe through USB or an iPod-style connector.

A voice interface would be fabulous, but there still seem to be technical issues with both speech recognition and speech synthesis. I used to work in that field and I keep dreaming, like Bill Gates and others do, that speech will finally take the world by storm. But maybe the time still hasn’t come.

It’s hard to tell what size the screen should be. There probably needs to be a range of devices with varying screen sizes. Apple’s Touch devices prove that you don’t need a very large screen to have an immersive experience. Maybe some HftRoU screens should in fact be larger than that of an iPhone or iPod touch. Especially if people are to read or write long-form text on them. Maybe the eeePC had it right. Especially if the devices’ form factor is more like a big handheld than like a small subnotebook (i.e., slimmer than an eeePC). One reason form factor matters, in my mind, is that it could make the devices “disappear.” That, and the difference between having a device on you (in your pocket) and carrying a bag with a device in it. Form factor was a big issue with my Newton MessagePad 130. As the OLPC XO showed, cost and power consumption are also important issues regarding screen size. I’d vote for a range of screens between 3.5 inch (iPhone) and 8.9 inch (eeePC 900) with a rather high resolution. A multitouch version of the XO’s screen could be a major contribution.

In terms of both audio and screen features, some consideration should be given to adaptive technologies. Most of us take for granted that “almost anyone” can hear and see. We usually don’t perceive major issues in the fact that “personal computing” typically focuses on visual and auditory stimuli. But if these devices truly are “for the rest of us,” they could help empower visually- or hearing-impaired individuals, who are often marginalized. This is especially relevant in the logic of humanitarianism.

HftRoU needs a much autonomy from a power source as possible. Both in terms of the number of hours devices can be operated without needing to be connected to a power source and in terms of flexibility in power sources. Power management is a major technological issue, with portable, handheld, and mobile devices. Engineers are hard at work, trying to find as many solutions to this issue as they can. This was, obviously, a major area of research for the OLPC. But I’m not even sure the solutions they have found are the only relevant ones for what I imagine HftRoU to be.

GPS could have interesting uses, but doesn’t seem very cost-effective. Other “wireless positioning systems” (à la Skyhook) might reprsent a more rational option. Still, I think positioning systems are one of the next big things. Not only for navigation or for location-based targeting. But for a set of “unintended uses” which are the hallmark of truly disruptive technology. I still remember an article (probably in the venerable Wired magazine) about the use of GPS/GIS for research into climate change. Such “unintended uses” are, in my mind, much closer to the constructionist ideal than the OLPC XO’s unified design can ever get.

Though a camera seems to be a given in any portable or mobile device (even the OLPC XO has one), I’m not yet that clear on how important it really is. Sure, people like taking pictures or filming things. Yes, pictures taken through cellphones have had a lasting impact on social and cultural events. But I still get the feeling that the main reason cameras are included on so many devices is for impulse buying, not as a feature to be used so frequently by all users. Also, standalone cameras probably have a rather high level of penetration already and it might be best not to duplicate this type of feature. But, of course, a camera could easily be a differentiating factor between two devices in the same category. I don’t think that cameras should be absent from HftRoU. I just think it’s possible to have “killer apps” without cameras. Again, I’m biased.

Apart from networking/connectivity uses, Bluetooth seems like a luxury. Sure, it can be neat. But I don’t feel it adds that much functionality to HftRoU. Yet again, I could be proven wrong. Especially if networking and other inter-device communication are combined. At some abstract level, there isn’t that much difference between exchanging data across a network and controlling a device with another device.

Yes, I do realize I pretty much described an iPod touch (or an iPhone without camera, Bluetooth, or cellphone fees). I’ve been lusting over an iPod touch since September and it does colour my approach. I sincerely think the iPod touch could serve as an inspiration for a new device type. But, again, I care very little about which company makes that device. I don’t even care about how open the operating system is.

As long as our minds are open.


Wishlists and Dreaming

I like how the OpenMoko people think.

Alcohol meter

Give the phone some info about your body (gender, size, weigth) and when/what you drink and it will compute an approximation of the amount of alcohol in your blood. Updates automatically, could have an alarm, when you are probably sober again. See, for example (German text) http://www.misterio-online.de/promille.htm

Wish List – OpenMoko

OpenMoko is an Open Source project for cellular phone software. It seems quite active and they have a current version of the software running on an actual phone. So it’s not just vapourware, AFAICT.

The whole wishlist is certainly worth a read. Full of neat ideas, some of which are trivial to implement, others are much more ambitious. For those who care about creativity, innovation, and technological sophistication, this is exactly the kind of project which shows the power of dreaming.

Or maybe I’m just recognising other “benevolent inventors.” 😉

Whatever this feeling is, OpenMoko might drive my dream phone in the not-so-distant future!

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Even Teachers Get the Blues

(With apologies to k.d. lang. Without apologies to  Gus Van Sant.)

In response to a forum discussion on teacher-rating sites, someone posted a link to this blog: Rate Your Students.

I also posted about disillusion. But the teacher in my post was meant more as a fictional character than as a personification of my own attitude.

Simply put,  despite some frustrations, I’m quite satisfied with my teaching life. Not necessarily because I get positive feedback from students. But because teaching is rewarding in many ways.

Been meaning to blog about the Spirit of Inquiry conference during which I presented on learning materials. It was quite interesting a context. Like-minded teachers from all over Canada, from many different disciplines and institutional backgrounds. Everyone pretty much in agreement on the necessity to think about teaching in a diversity of ways. A lot of thoughtful discussion about rather deep issues.  Almost as welcoming as the food and culture conference during which I talked about craft beer culture. So I’m thinking about teaching quite a bit.

I have been more impressed by students than by fellow teachers. Oh, some students are difficult to deal with, at times. But every single one of them has something interesting to contribute to any course they take. While I realise that this attitude sounds like the bursting blossom idealism decried by the aforementioned blog, I don’t mind saying it.

Here’s why: I don’t really feel disillusioned because I don’t recall ever being “illusioned.”

I’ve met a lot of teachers in my young life. My mother married two teachers and teachers do tend to connect with other teachers. My father (my mother’s second husband) transmitted part of his teaching philosophy to me. As [name-dropping]daddy was trained by Jean Piaget[/name-dropping], this teaching philosophy of his was quite specific. Yes, constructivism and all that. But also a certain dose of cynicism, especially toward blanket statements about student performance. This made me somewhat impervious to teaching disappointment.

In English-speaking parts of North America, there’s a lot of what I think of as “studies have shown” perspectives on learning. A good deal of blind trust for results of survey research on teaching effectiveness. These survey research projects often emphasize the most common responses to teaching. In the mind of some of these people, learning is something that the majority of students should do when a teacher is “good.” Teaching effectiveness is obvious when a majority of students have “learnt their lesson,” so to speak. As you might guess, I don’t relate very well to these views. I respect the people who hold them but I feel a disconnect between my views of teaching and their views of learning. Sure, I adapt to these views when I teach in an environment where they are held by a good number of people. But I wish to keep some distance from these views.

The part I don’t like is when we (as teachers) are told to use very specific methods in order to ensure student learning. I really don’t have a problem with tips and tricks for teaching. They’re very inspiring and can really enhance teaching experience. What I’m less enthusiastic about is the type of “you should teach in blocks of 20 minutes at a time because studies have shown that students tend to have a difficult time concentrating for more than 20 minutes at a time.” I understand the effects of the “change-up” (switching from one task to another during a class period) and I have started to implement a teaching strategy which does involve a variety of interaction modes during a given class period. Yet the notion that “The One Way to Teach” implies piecemeal development is quite foreign to me.

“Where I come from,” we could have seminars lasting for seven straight hours and everyone’s attention seemed quite focused. Oh, sure, I’m pretty sure many people were daydreaming when others were talking. But that daydreaming was quite relevant to the discussion. Kind of like the “drift-off moment” in a successful sales pitch. The whole “what you say makes me think of,” with surprising and satisfying results. For instance, it’s easy to imagine the response “your talking about aesthetics makes me think of baking.” Sounds absurd at first, but it can be very useful. We’re merging horizons, pushing inter-subjectivity. We’re not making sure everyone remembers everything that has been said. There are recording devices for that.

Am I ranting? Maybe. But not about people themselves. If I’m venting frustrations, it’s because I enjoy what I do in the classroom and want to go several steps forward.

I do dream about teaching fairly regularly. In fact, when I woke up this morning, I was thinking about my own concept of critical thinking as it relates to my teaching philosophy. I would assume that it means that I was dreaming about teaching, probably because of the conference. Unfortunately for those who really think about learning and teaching, many people merely use “critical thinking” or “skill transfer” as buzzphrases to convince administrators that what they do is trendy. Fortunately, most of the conference attendees were using such concepts as “social constructivism” and “inquiry-based learning” in non-buzzphrase ways.

Still lots to say about teaching. But true to my RERO resolution,  I will leave it at that, for now.