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The original NES sold 62 million units.  (Source: Nintendo)

One of the $12 "TV computers" -- basically an NES clone -- plugged into graduate student Derek Lomas' TV. He plans to use the design to create an internet-ready OLPC competitor.  (Source: Derek Lomas)

An Indian retailer proudly displays the NES knockoff.  (Source: Derek Lomas )
Students are convinced they can beat the OLPC product with a modified version of the original Nintendo console that is internet ready

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project has yielded a mix of success and failure.  On the positive side, it has managed to put together a relatively low cost, fully functional laptop; the XO.  On the downside many features were left out, including the sometimes criticized, sometimes praised idea of crank power generation.  Also on the not-so-good front, the laptop, which was supposed to be a $100 laptop, ballooned to a cost of $188.  Other bad news came when chipmaker Intel pulled out of the project, launching a potential competitor -- a second generation Classmate notebook.

Now a group of MIT students look to add to OLPC's woes by offering up a functional computer at a far lower price -- around $15 to $20 USD.  American graduate student Derek Lomas was inspired on how to design the device when he came across a "TV" computer selling for $12 USD in India.  The computer was nothing more than a clone/rip-off of the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), with more functionality added.  The device was so similar it accepted NES cartridges.

The computer features the same technology as the NES -- a muscular 1.78-MHz 8-bit processor, a gargantuan 2k of video memory and the ability to display 256-by-240 pixels in 25 colors.  Originally launching in 1985 in the U.S., the console went on to sell 62 million units worldwide, and was a runaway success that remained a culture icon into the 1990s.  Its games still sell through the Nintendo Wii's Virtual Console legacy system.

The popularity led to many knockoff models, such as the Victor-70 that Mr. Lomas encountered.  Many of these models were unlicensed machines manufactured in China.  Mr. Lomas states, "A lot of the Srishti Design students who saw me playing with this used to have one themselves, several years ago. Back then, this cost nearly 3,000 rupees [$75 U.S.]."

Unlike the NES, though, all the hardware including the memory, processor and cartridge case are not contained in a plastic housing, but rather inside a large keyboard.  Game controllers and a mouse can also attach to the keyboard, which plugs directly into the television.  Online retailers in India sell the Victor-70 for a slightly higher price of $23.99.  The product may actually be legal as in the U.S. patents expire after 20 years. 

One potential benefit of a modified Victor-70 is it would feature the Basic programming language, to make programming easy for new users.  At the Development Design Summit held at MIT yearly, Mr. Lomas plans on presenting his findings.  He and a group of other international graduate students and designers hope to transform the Victor-70 into a modern computer.  They are confident they can add internet access and other perks while keeping the price low.

Another alternative to the Victor-70 is a laptop Mr. Lomas encountered in Indian markets which retails for $15 USD, and comes with a blank and white LCD screen.

Whichever the team chooses, if they are able to keep costs beneath $20, they may have a hit on their hands.  Despite the lower capabilities and the inability to use a modern OS, you could buy 9-10 units of their device for the cost of one OLPC, given these prices.  The OLPC may be more powerful, but the MIT team's computer may prove more practical.

The OLPC project was actually founded at MIT, in a slight irony of history.

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RE: Misguided?
By therealnickdanger on 8/8/2008 11:12:32 AM , Rating: 0
So now, when they are starving and watching their villages burn from brutal, genocidal guerilla attacks, they'll be comforted with knowledge of the history behind the conflict - courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sorry, the cynic in me couldn't stay silent.

I agree that OLPC is valuable in stablilized areas, but it does still feel a lot like placing the cart before the horse. So what is little Zubunta to do with his word-processing skills in an area with no printers or where they can't afford a ream of 89+ Ultra-Brite? How does he turn in a "paper"? The village has wi-fi, but are they sharing a 14.4k connection? Is MS Paint as flexible as Crayola? Who is going to make education software for OLPC? Will it promote a single language? Will it have an agenda? Will having an OLPC really help solve a problem in his home village or will he move away to India and answer tech support for Dell, never to return?

Where's the infrastructure to support the benefits of the OLPC?

RE: Misguided?
By lightfoot on 8/8/2008 1:02:33 PM , Rating: 4
So what is little Zubunta to do...

At a $20 price you can have the PC and the AK-47, it's no longer a choice between survival or education - now you can have both.

Starvation in the modern age is mostly related to war, not due to lack of food.

RE: Misguided?
By taber on 8/8/2008 1:36:29 PM , Rating: 2
I agree that there are some areas where this wouldn't make sense, but I could see OLPC having some worthwhile markets. If you're just sending text a 14.4k modem for a village would provide a wealth of information. With ad-hoc networks they turn in their paper by emailing it to their local instructor (or elsewhere if they have that 14.4k connection). Computers from 20 years ago were useful to us, it's not like everybody needs to start with a modern computer.

There's no guarantee that giving an individual knowledge to solve their problems will help, but I think it would help occasionally. What's wrong with giving them an opportunity to leave their village and work abroad? If someone is successful elsewhere there's always a chance they'll try to bring that success home or at least send part of their earnings home.

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