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Jonathan Erickson

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8-Bits for 12 Bucks? Why Not

February 18, 2009

A $12 computer as a platform for bringing computer-aided learning to millions of children in India, Brazil, Ghana and other developing countries? Derek Lomas, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, thinks so, after seeing $12 computers being sold in marketplaces in Mumbai, India during an internship for Qualcomm.

"The low-cost computers were powerful enough to run effective learning games," said Lomas. "This is important in developing countries because basic computing skills such as the ability to type can make the difference between earning a dollar a day versus a dollar an hour."

That realization led him to co-found Playpower.org, a non-profit organization composed of like-minded colleagues at UC San Diego, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, University of Sao Paola in Brazil, Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, India, and Zhejiang University of Media and Communications in Hangzhou, China. With help from a manufacturing consultancy in Shanghai, the team has been acquiring low-cost computers from a factory in China and shipping them to different Playpower.org developers, including those at MIT and Stanford.

The 8-bit computers come with a full keyboard, mouse, and game controllers and can be sold for as little as $12.  The 8-bit computers use a TV as a screen. This technology is designed for the emerging middle class in countries such as India where the majority of the homes have a TV, but no computer. The 8-bit computers are still relatively popular and appear in low-end marketplaces in Nicaragua, Brazil, China, India and other places, according to Lomas.

 "If they had higher quality learning games, these computers could achieve much more," he said. "They are already being sold in these countries, so if we supply the manufacturers with the new learning games, we can possibly help millions of children gain access to high-quality computer-aided learning."

The current computers are commonly packaged with educational content that can teach basic typing, language, and programming skills. Playpower.org's goal is to develop new educational software for the 8-bit computers, along with  SDKs that empower users to write their own software. "We want to empower users to create their own games and learning programs in their own language," said Jeremy Douglass, co-founder of Playpower.org and a postdoctoral researcher in the Software Studies Initiative at California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technologies (Calit2).

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