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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 BZDTemp on 8/8/2008 2:01:41 PM , Rating: 2
I think you have misunderstood the OLPC program.

The OLPC project is of course not about bringing computers to those with no food it is about bringing computers to those which have just what they need. They idea is that education makes people smart and more education make people ever smarter. Those smart people may perhaps see ways to improve there life and the life of those around them. OLPC is perhaps a way to let some people go quickly from a situation where they may just be able to write their name to a situation that let them do so much more.

My favorite charity is UNICEF. Not because they bring food and vaccinations to children but because they also bring pencils and paper and books to children. It's third world aid not only for the hand-to-mouth problems but also for the long run. In a sense helping those children having a better chance of aiding them self someday AND perhaps also helping the people around them.

RE: Misguided?
By drebo on 8/8/2008 4:07:26 PM , Rating: 4
If it's true that this is only about education, then we should be shipping all of our old text books to them. Solve the disposal problem as well as further their educations.

A computer and the internet are not needs. One can get just as good an education without a computer as one could with a computer. Some people might even argue that the education is better.

To me, this entire initiative is nothing more than a big, political, public image-driven circle-jerk. There's no money to be made in it, it serves no greater good or purpose (more than, say, actually going over and teaching or sending food and water and clothing), and it's not even practical.

RE: Misguided?
By Carter642 on 8/8/2008 4:31:51 PM , Rating: 2
The problem with shipping textbooks is printing and more significantly distribution. You can send out as many copies of a text file as you want for the same amount of money rather than paying by the ton to ship them if you can even locate who you're trying to ship it to.

Super cheap computers with network access can take the place of a whole library. Personally though I'd rather see them make an e-ink based device with say a spine with wifi and a very simple interface just for reading books. We need to make libraries easy to access and view, not so much facebook and IM.

RE: Misguided?
By drebo on 8/8/2008 8:07:45 PM , Rating: 1
Computers generally weigh a heck of a lot more than books do. Books are far easier to ship, too. Much less environmentally sensitive. Not as much padding.

In the bulk shipping industry, you pay a LOT more for volume than you do for weight.

Shipping argument doesn't fly. It's no more economical to ship 40 computers than it is to ship a classroom set of books.

RE: Misguided?
By jeff834 on 8/9/2008 11:47:55 PM , Rating: 2
Your mistake is comparing 1 textbook to 1 computer. Where in actuality 1 computer equals 100, 1000, or 10000 textbooks. Both computers and textbooks can make a difference but ultimately a very inexpensive computer is much more cost effective than 100 textbooks.

RE: Misguided?
By BZDTemp on 8/9/2008 8:26:59 AM , Rating: 2
EH - and how much good would your old text books do? It may come as a surprise to you but English is not the language used in every country in the world (far from actually - by example English is my third language).

And why should the developing nations have to settle for old used text books. What good does it to have them learn outdated stuff when there is a way to supply them current knowledge? Plus they surely need to learn other things not covered in western text books.

It seems to me that you have not realized what this is about. It is about bringing the basic education in struggling countries closer to our standard. Maybe it was no so when you was in school or when I was in school but these days kids in our schools get their own laptops. And there are computers all over the place - in fact that is the very infrastructure which lets us have this exchange of views across the globe.

Bringing better education to developing nations mean they will eventually be able to do better. Why is that wrong?

RE: Misguided?
By JustTom on 8/10/2008 12:05:18 AM , Rating: 2
So we ship books written in American English to people speaking Swahili....

"Google fired a shot heard 'round the world, and now a second American company has answered the call to defend the rights of the Chinese people." -- Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.)

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