Edubuntu for Burundi

The original idea behind inexpensive laptops for the third world was supplemented by the powers of capital depreciation. Specifically, why try and design a new $100 laptop for developing nations’ students when a first world $1500 laptop will be written down and donated to charities and volunteer groups within 2-3 years?

edubuntu desktop

edubuntu desktop

We recently had the opportunity to take advantage of a situation like this – a school in Burundi would benefit from 25 nice HP laptops, netbooks, and convertible tablets if we could find OS and education software for them. Laptops work well in this situation, since power is intermittent, and the load that can be taken from generators when they are available should be minimized. The mix of existing license keys for Windows XP through Vista and 7 were not going to be easy to work with, so I chose Ubuntu as the OS and an education package that included GCompris (140+ education mini games), Marble (Goolge Earth), Celestia (astronomy), and of course LibreOffice. Here are some of the things I learned and can pass on to save you a few minutes in a similar situation:

  • Try the Edubuntu Distribution at It has GCompris and the other software already in the image
  • HP Laptops play very well with Ubuntu 14, from Wifi to webcams and even stylus/tablet. Models included Elitebook, 8170p (17″ machines), and 5101 Netbooks. (Linlap is a great reference for linux/laptop compatibility based on community feedback.) Very little configuration was needed aside from some wake up changes to etc/NetworkManagaer/NetworkManage.conf file. Specifically, setting the Wifi controller to be explicitly managed. This only had to be done to a few of the 5101s
  • Ideally I wanted to install an offline version of Wikipedia and wikibooks. I found that Xowa could do the trick, and that English wikipedia without photos was about 5GB. Wikibooks was around 1GB. In order to have images and media, the Common package must be downloaded as well, best done from within Xowa’s download manager. This is still a bit of a work in progress, though, since I would like to install this from a stick, not n/w download
  • Edubuntu run off a stick runs well with no known issues, good for machines missing hard drives, since storage space can be allocated on the USB stick at the time of creation.
  • Install time is about thirty minutes per computer from a USB stick, Some care and feeding is needed during install, a fully automated install with all options preselected would be the next step for a project any larger than this one
  • The Unity interface is intuitive for teachers used to Windows or OSX, though the applications menu via the default search icon is somewhat non-intuitive (a bit like windows 8 where you can’t just see all apps immediately)

Lesson learned – the Linux community is thinking about computer literacy for developing countries, and it shows!

Don’t call it hydraulics

Disney has an big interest in animatronics – just try visiting one of their parks and avoiding it.

These are mainly kept at a very safe distance because either the visitor or the animatronic ‘robot’ are fragile compared to one another. Disney is all about interaction and asked the question – how can the animatronics and the visitors be safe around eachother? Disney Research Pittsburgh approached an old solution in a novel way – by removing some of the most problematic areas of working-fluid actuators in order to make a ‘softer’, friendlier animatronic.

The solution looks at first glance to be hydraulic – pressure lines connect pistons, allowing the actuator drive and the actuation posit to be separated. The system can work with an incompressible or compressible fluid.

The key difference over hydraulics is actually the lower performance – the lower working fluid pressure (100psi) and a unique ‘rolling gasket’ type seal in the pistons. This gasket reduces the problem of ‘sticktion’ (initial extra friction at the start of an actuation movement) to almost nothing, and reduces friction during travel as well. This requires less overall pressurization in the system to achieve smooth motion, and by moving the actuator motors off the robot itself, total mass is reduced, creating a positive feedback where less mass requires less actuation power. There are some design challenges that seem open, though: Continue reading

Fitt’s Law

Fitt’s Law is especially useful in human-machine interfaces.

It defines the time required to point (finger, mouse pointer) at a target based on it’s realtive position and size.

The two simplest examples would be a 1px x 1px button on the far corner of the screen, versus a 300px x 200px  button immediately next to the pointer. It explains the advantage of radial “pie menus”, right-click context menus, and automatic mouse pointer repositioning in O/S popup windows.

Very nice watch design

sentio watch

A tactile watch with 7-segment digits (pseudo digital) that raise or lower – good for the sight impaired of course, but also a well executed design in general – one of the cleanest I have seen, especially in the watch world where ornate details can get a bit Byzantine.

The details of the clasp and band anodization are particularly striking, but what I admire most is that the designer is polling visitors to see if the market would support production of this watch. Using the internet as a test market is almost disarmingly modest and plays on some of the best aspects of social web interaction.

Finally, he could have made the interface American Brail (in fact the backside of the watch hints at this feature), but instead has taken the wider view that such a novel and elegant interface would appeal broadly. It plays on the very human desire to figure out puzzles and learn [small] new skills. We are learning creatures and the connection between novelty and this aspect of human nature should not be overlooked by designers. The flip side is that too much of a departure from the ordinary can be too much of a learning curve for some (learning brail for example or any of the binary-display type watches)