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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 wordsworm on 8/13/2008 9:10:25 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
I understand this is some kind of philanthropic gesture, but I'm pretty sure most of them would rather have a bowl of rice and a glass of water than an Internet-ready computer they can plug in to...oh wait.


Yeah, that's right. Knowledge has never contributed to growing food or getting water. Education isn't the key to getting out of poverty. I'm sure glad you're not the one calling the shots. I think you've got your priority way screwed up. Bravo to the folks who're bringing means of education to the less fortunate.

And for those of you who suggest that books are better... a single textbook of decent quality goes for about $100+. If they can get a computer into their hands for less than the cost of a book, which can provide for them an endless bounty of knowledge, and potentially a source of income. Of course, they might end up taking American jobs, and that's the true issue here: fear. Fear of the poor guy taking some money from the rich guy. Well, good luck to them. Really, if they make $5 per day, they'd have all the wealth they'd need to buy a bowl of rice for themselves and everyone else in their family.


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