Reading eBooks in the Sunshine

   
   
   
   
   
martin woodhouse
Martin a few years ago

In the company of my young assistant Callum -- aged thirteen, writes PC games in his spare time, holds that the Help button is used only by wimps, and has already emailed Winchester College (which he is about to attend) to make sure that they have a computer-controlled milling machine he can use -- I have taken the battery out of my elderly Toshiba Satellite.

It is 70mm x 18mm x 170mm, weighs 630gms, and has a capacity of 2.8 ampere-hours at 12v, or 33.6 Watt-hours. It is thus something of a brute, lasts about 2 hours in the Satellite, and has an eco-impact -- when we include its disposal -- which I hardly care to think about.

Power consumption in computers is notoriously hard to measure and varies greatly according to what the machine is actually doing from minute to minute. My best guess is that the average laptop consumes between 90 and 120 watts (though a current magazine review of a 'multimedia' laptop quotes a battery life of only 67 minutes!)

Suppose we want to lower power requirement by an order of magnitude? We do this by, among other things: removing all the rotating bits (fans and disk drives); using a low-consumption screen such as Mary Lou Jepson's nice dual mode screen -- 0.1 Watts in standby, up to 1 Watt if fully backlit -- and in particular by specifying software which will allow the processor and other bits to drop back automatically into full 'resting' low-power mode when they're not actually doing anything.

This results -- hey ! -- in the OLPC XO. Which, so far as I can see from various articles here, has a target power consumption of 2 Watts (mean) but has so far reached 9 to 11 Watts. So it has indeed dropped by ten times compared with the average laptop. (Let us not forget, therefore, that, current political and commercial hoo-hah notwithstanding, the XO is a damn good little machine, excellently designed.)

The trouble is that it still needs quite a lot of infrastructure in order to keep its battery charged, small though the power required to do that may be. Hence the often gloomy estimates for its overall costs as part of an actual educational package.

Very well. But now let's suppose we were to reduce the power requirement for a hand-held machine by another order of magnitude, thus targeting a minimum of say 0.2 Watts, a mean over time of perhaps 0.5 Watts and a maximum of 1 Watt or so when running at full chat?

Ten times less than the X0, then, and one hundred times less than the 'standard' laptop? If we can do this, we've entered a whole new country. Because we can now power the machine directly from its own built in solar panel.

This means: no external electrical infrastructure. We still need a small battery, to smooth out the power supplied by the solar cell and to give us a short reserve in case we want to use the device after dark; but this can be very small indeed -- let's say a couple of AAA NiMH cells. Low initial cost, then, and a far smaller ecological imprint.

We can build such a machine, as I think I've shown. Its limitation will be that the 'computing' tasks it can perform will themselves be limited. We can forget the Internet, and forget Windows. The processing overhead -- the 'bloat' -- for these kinds of function will take its power requirement well over the sort of level we're talking about.

What we can make it do, and easily, is read books. That is to say, to perform the relatively simple task of taking pages out of static, low-powered memory, putting them, in colour and with pictures, onto a screen like Mary Lou Jepson's, and arranging -- as the XO does -- to drop the (cheap, slow, low-powered) CPU to 'go to sleep' while it isn't doing this or one of a few other simply tasks like reading a button or searching for a page to display.

To do this, our machine -- it will be a $50 I-Book Reader, and nothing else -- needs its own operating system, its own (very simple) interface, and a supply of illustrated books in colour, in a format tailored for use by that operating system and interface.

It will be, in fact, something like the Illumination E-Book Reader, or "I-Reader".

The books it reads will be Illumination books, in their own format, and occupying around a megabyte or less per book, for a 400-page textbook or a fully-pictorial comic book. So we can fit a thousand or so of these Illumination books, as a library, onto a nice little one-gigabyte card, which we can slot into the side of the I-Reader itself.

Of course, all it will do is read picture books from that library, and we can discuss for a long time whether this is enough to educate a poor and illiterate child, living without shoes or electricity on the edge of the jungle or a desert, or whether these modern times demand that we teach him to access the Internet or perform other 'computing' tasks.

I say that reading is enough. It's exactly what's needed. Far more importantly, its territory is the one Professor Negroponte intended when he set up the OLPC project, but whose children the revamped, all-singing, all-dancing XO will no longer reach.
You can see for yourself the kind of thing it will do for those children.

And, yes, when they have become literate -- with all which that implies in terms of raising their own living standards -- then of course it will be time for them to become computer-skilled as well, using OLPC's laptop.

The I-Reader is not intended to supplant the XO, but to lead up to it.

Related Entries

14 Comments

Nice post.
A question: How much of the OLPC 'power overhead' is taken up by the mesh networking functionality? In other words, what does power consumption look like when mesh networking is on vs off? I would suspect that there may be a *huge* difference. Given that these are meant to be 'connected machines' (at least if the pedagogical model put forward still holds), what might this mean in practical terms?
To Martin's post: As a practical matter, mightn't the iReader functionality you propose be largely possible with a mobile phone? Yes, I do understand that there are important (obvious) differences in how much can be displayed, and in what format. But kids around the world appear to be remarkably adept at reading on these tiny screens, and $50/user might well be better spent on a mobile phone that could also (potentiallly) be used to do things like text and call, in addition to just read things? (Related: The BBC Digital Planet podcast just featured a Swedish company called Terranet that claims to be able to link mobile phones together via mesh networking, much in the manner of what the OLPC aims to do.)

See http://www.teleread.org/blog/?p=7123 for my own reflections on Martin's excellent concept.

He has exactly the right idea--traditional literacy ahead of tech literacy, which of course can follow. Rather than fearing his vision, OLPC should embrace it. Among other things, by popularizing e-booking in remote locations, the Solar Computer might help OLPC draw additional interet from traditional publishers. Also, notice Martin is saying his project will LEAD up to the XO, not kill it off?

Two odds and ends:

--A better name for the project would be the Solar Computer.

--I hope it'll be usable with the IDPF format, among others, one way to help bring the machine into the mainstream world of books.

--A solar module could be optional. People instead could use a regular wall charger if they preferred. That way, Martin would have an excellent machine for sale to tech-shy consumers in First World countries.

Thanks,
David Rothman, TeleRead.org

martin-

you're basically reinventing mattel's "juicebox":
> http://service.mattel.com/us/product_detail.asp?id=H2676
> http://service.mattel.com/us/product_detail.asp?id=h3904
> http://service.mattel.com/us/product_detail.asp?id=H4448

here's a general review:
> http://tween-trends.suite101.com/article.cfm/mattel_juice_box

here's "make" magazine's entry on using a juicebox for e-books:
> http://www.makezine.com/blog/archive/2005/06/read_ebooks_on.html

and here's an article detailing how to install software on the thing:
> http://www.instructables.com/id/Pixecutor---run-software-on-a-Mattel-JuiceBox/

it's a worthwhile project, even though it falls far short of the xo.

-bowerbird

From the post:

"The trouble is that it still needs quite a lot of infrastructure in order to keep its battery charged, small though the power required to do that may be."

So you are saying that the potenco yoyo won't do the job? Do you have any arguments for that claim?

"Far more importantly, its territory is the one Professor Negroponte intended when he set up the OLPC project, but whose children the revamped, all-singing, all-dancing XO will no longer reach."

Huh? Are you saying that the XO was originally supposed to be a simple device like your ebook reader, but then later became much more complex? And as to the audience, it is still aimed at the bottem of society, only it is going to take a few years before it is cheap enough for that group.

"And, yes, when they have become literate -- with all which that implies in terms of raising their own living standards -- then of course it will be time for them to become computer-skilled as well, using OLPC's laptop.

The I-Reader is not intended to supplant the XO, but to lead up to it."

But teaching literacy skills is part of what XO can do that an ebook reader can't, at least not as well. That can include self-tutoring literacy software that helps overcome the problem that many developing countries have a great shortage of teachers -- or of teachers who show up to teach.

Beyond that, the XO has many other educational uses, and many non-educational ones, too. Everyone is going to use it -- it will become a village computer. And within two or three years it will be cheap enough to be widespread. As I have argued several times, the XO is a far better financial investment because it has so many more uses than an ebook reader.

Hello Eduardo

Th trouble is that you appear to imagine that a child with a laptop computer such as the XO is going to be siting down, beavering away, absorbing education with gratitude for having been given the wherewithal to do so . . . ?

The children of the jungle and the desert are no different from my grandchildren. Given a laptop, they will be playing YetiSports and Super Mario or listening to pop music from YouTube. Won't they?

And why not? We could argue that those activities belong to education, I suppose

It would be nice, though, to give them a device upon which they could only read books. Even after they've got their XO's and are interacting with them like mad. Don't you think so?

Martin,

I really hope your device will succeed. I would just like to understand the details about the "big vision". I fear that you may fall into the same problem OLPC is facing, no clear implementation plan that is. In particular:

Distribution: How and who will provide the books? Will special organizations be in charge of it? Since the code is proprietary, who will be able to manage the cumbersome translation of books?

Is there going to be a sort of library where kids can actually get their books? You kind of dismiss Internet as a medium...

Device: How many books will the Reader be able to contain? What happens if the kid wants to have several of his favorites, but there is no space?

Finally: have you been in touch with some manufacturer about the actual feasibility of the project?

One last thing: you suggested the use of ARM processors. I don't think they are the most efficient chips for your device. Have you considered old but much leaner Motorolas?

Nick

Hi Nick

I haven't forgotten the need for an implementation plan which you and I have discussed off-board. It's just that it's the hardest part to put together [!] but, yes, it's certainly vital --- look at the XO sage itself, for one thing --- and I promise you I am working one out, if slowly.

( For one thing, I learn more and more about doing it the more people outside my own particular bit of the field I talk to --- including yourself, but also production engineers and so on --- and I don't want to go off half-cocked. )

You may take it, though, that at least two-thirds of any such plan will be concerned not with the Reader itself, but with the provision of material to be read on it. That much I can already see, and clearly.

Cheers

Hi,

I notice you compare power requirements of a laptop with the battery life.

"My best guess is that the average laptop consumes between 90 and 120 watts (though a current magazine review of a 'multimedia' laptop quotes a battery life of only 67 minutes!)"

Using the battery life of what sounds like a low-end laptop to illustrate an argument for reduced power requirements is a little misleading. While it is _technically_ correct, other matters interfere.

In my experience, most laptops eat between 60 and 90 watts these days, a little lower that your estimate (down from a peak of around 150W a few years ago).

The battery life figure isn't determined (directly) by the battery capacity, but a combination of the cost accepted by the manufacturer and the battery life demanded by the target market.

In reality, battery life is determined by the marketing drones - With the huge pressure on prices over the last couple of years, the smallest battery possible is installed, unless the market demands otherwise (which for many laptops is not a major concern - they're often desktop replacements these days).

I think it may be better to compare the overall cost of the battery/power-supply with the battery life provided, rather than focusing the capacity (which should remain a 'hidden' specification). (I know you _do_ mention the cost, but only much later in your article, almost as an aside.)

Other than that, I enjoy reading about this ebook design. Thanks!

[phew! That ended-up longer than I expected... :) ]

Martin,

"The children of the jungle and the desert are no different from my grandchildren. Given a laptop, they will be playing YetiSports and Super Mario or listening to pop music from YouTube. Won't they?"

So children don't want to learn, but only play, but if you give them an ebook reader then they will drop their various forms of play and instead read. Interesting idea, do you have any research to back it up?

Actually, as researchers have determined, play is a key way children learn. Computers can be good for education because they can make school learning more like play (for instance check out this story: http://games.slashdot.org/games/07/09/20/052223.shtml)


"It would be nice, though, to give them a device upon which they could only read books. Even after they've got their XO's and are interacting with them like mad. Don't you think so?"

So the long-term plan is each child will have two devices? Why does a child that has an XO that includes ebook reading capability -- and is small enough to carry around -- also need a separate ebook reader? And what about the added expense? Is the idea that the child wants to play games on the XO, but will have forgotten to take it along and only has your ebook reader, and so will be forced to read instead? And this will happen regularly? Is this your reply to my argument that XO is a better investment because it gives far more bang for the buck?

Martin,

"The children of the jungle and the desert are no different from my grandchildren. Given a laptop, they will be playing YetiSports and Super Mario or listening to pop music from YouTube. Won't they?"

So children don't want to learn, but only play, but if you give them an ebook reader then they will drop their various forms of play and instead read. Interesting idea, do you have any research to back it up?

Actually, as researchers have determined, play is a key way children learn. Computers can be good for education because they can make school learning more like play (for instance check out this story: http://games.slashdot.org/games/07/09/20/052223.shtml)


"It would be nice, though, to give them a device upon which they could only read books. Even after they've got their XO's and are interacting with them like mad. Don't you think so?"

So the long-term plan is each child will have two devices? Why does a child that has an XO that includes ebook reading capability -- and is small enough to carry around -- also need a separate ebook reader? And what about the added expense? Is the idea that the child wants to play games on the XO, but will have forgotten to take it along and only has your ebook reader, and so will be forced to read instead? And this will happen regularly? Is this your reply to my argument that XO is a better investment because it gives far more bang for the buck?

Eduardo --

My grandchildren have constant access to computers. They love playing games on them.

They also love reading books, and they love being read to. It's my (unscientific) impression that they learn from both kinds of activity.

I don't know whether this counts as 'research', or not. But, yes, I'd like 'my' children of the jungle and desert to have the same opportunities as my grandchildren in England.

Cheers, Martin

Hi Martin . . .

On the subject of batteries in the AA and AAA size form factor, I think that you might want to investigate these for your eBook . . .

http://www.stefanv.com/electronics/sanyo_eneloop.html

The above site is from an independent user and not
from the manufacturer. My casual first-hand personal experience this past month or so (minus the comprehensive electronic testing and much longer term observations that this fellow has carefully
documented) is similarly positive. They really do seem live up to the manufacturing hype.

The traditional alkaline throw-away batteries that we have used for years have a long shelf life (6 to 9 months of use out of the box . . . longer if the device is not in constant use or has a low current draw) but they are a long-term environmental problem. Most don't get properly recycled and end up rotting in landfills.

The more ecologically responsible rechargable nickel metal hydrides (NiMH) are the most well know alternative that has been generally available in recent years. You have to charge them up upon purchase and they'll do fine for a few weeks. But they self-discharge very quickly, in comparison to throw-away alkalines, and you have to recharge again constantly . . . even if they aren't in constant use. A very high current draw device - like a digital camera - might only give you a day or two before full discharge. Most folks don't want to bother with this constant upkeep, so large scale consumer adoption has been slow.

The Sanyo Eneloops (and several other competitors who are marketing their own versions of this NiMH low self-discharge technology) are a recent innovation. They actually come out of the box fully - or near fully - charged. Use them for the same general time period that you would expect from a good alkeline (months, not weeks) and then recharge to get a similarly long use cycle again. Since this can be done 500 or more times, a set of AAs or AAAs could, under typical use, last for decades!

Benjamin -- thank you for the reference to batteries, it's very helpful (and I was already starting to wonder about the ecological and cost balance between 'one-shot' and rechargeable).

In general, if anyone finds, any relevant information on power supplies, screens or photovoltaic (solar) panels which they think I should know about, please post it here or email me.

I need all such information badly.

Thanks again, Martin

Nick Wrote:
"One last thing: you suggested the use of ARM processors. I don't think they are the most efficient chips for your device. Have you considered old but much leaner Motorolas?"

Actually Nick, the AT91 series ARM processors have the highest MIPS per Watt rating of any device on the market. One device has a clock frequency of around 200MHz and consumes only 70mA. A lower powered device is available with on-chip LCD backplane drivers capable of supporting up to 2048x2048 pixels.

One great feature of the family is the ability to run in burst mode when hi performance is needed and drop back to a 32KHz clock (and use only a few milliamps of current). Ideal for book readers that need do little else but drive a display for most of the time.

XO Tablets for Sale

Buy Your XO Tablet on Amazon.com
OLPC is selling the new XO Tablets on Amazon.com for just $149. Buy yours today!

xo-tablet-amazon.jpg
Close