OLPC + FM radio = lessons beamed to computers

OLPCMarko Ala-Fossi of the University of Tampere in Finland sent me interesting link to an article about a project of some students in New Zealand using FM radio to beam lessons to the XO computers used by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. The article is from Peter Griffen’s blog. Griffen is a member of the selection committee for a “Microsoft Imagine Cup” which, in his words, “pits teams of university students against each other in a bid to find the top four most innovative and potentially world-changing projects”.

One of the projects competing for the cup mixes OLPC and FM radio to overcome at least one of the major connectivity hurdles faced by the OLPC initiative. Griffen’s complete post is at http://sciblogs.co.nz/griffins-gadgets/2010/02/25/a-beeping-good-idea-for-low-cost-communication/

The idea is to leverage off the growing number of XO laptops available in third world countries as part of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) programme which is active here in New Zealand where a network of testers including Sciblogger Fabiana Kubke help refine the low-cost computer’s features.

There are 1.2 million OLPC laptops now in use, but there remains a big problem – third world countries don’t really have the communications infrastructure to get content out to those laptops in a reliable fashion. Mobile networks often don’t extend into areas, satellite and fixed wireless systems are too expensive options. Team Beep came up with a great idea – why not use the readily available FM broadcast frequency to send out a stream of data that can be picked up by a bog standard FM radio. The signal is then fed into the sound card of the XO latop and recorded using a small piece of open source . The then converts the audio signal, which consists of a stream of beeps representing letters, into text and assembles it as a document.

Radiotext-type services using the FM network are not a new idea, here’s one project from Europe seeking to offer similar services and digital radio is already rolled out in many countries delivering weather, traffic and channel information to radio users. But the innovative part of One Beep’s solution is the interface between an FM radio and the XO laptops used as part of the OLPC programme. With some refinements, this should be a piece of software that cna be simple to use and allow children in remote villages in to be sent school lessons updated regularly.

Currently, the data throughput One Beep is achieving is fairly low – 2Kbps (kilobits per second). But the team is confident compression technology can increase this to 10Kbps. I think they’d find others are working in this area who may be worth partnering with to get the data throughput possible via FM radio even higher.

This is a solution that could be rolled out tomorrow – it requires use of a small sliver of radio spectrum, a radio transmitter to send out the signal (the further it needs to go the more powerful the transmitter needs to be) and the software has to be installed on each OLPC machine. Hopefully the competition and One Beep’s making it to the final will give the project the profile it needs to become reality.

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