One Laptop Per Child readies 'Sugar' interface

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) has taken another step forward in its mission to make low-cost laptops available to children in developing countries, unveiling a user interface purpose-built for the machines.

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One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) has taken another step forward in its mission to make low-cost laptops available to children in developing countries, unveiling a user interface purpose-built for the machines.

The open source user interface announced today -- known by the codename Sugar -- was developed by OLPC in conjunction with Linux distribution vendor Red Hat and design firm Pentagram. The organisations' combined 10-person design team focused on creating a user interface that could be easily used by children with little or no computing experience.

Sugar is still "a work in progress", according to Christopher Blizzard, software team lead for OLPC at Red Hat. "The code's working reasonably well, but there's a lot of polish we need to do."

Over the next couple of months, OLPC plans to ramp up the numbers of its laptops in countries including Argentina, Brazil and Nigeria from the current 10 to 50 devices per country into the "low thousands", Blizzard said. As children start using the laptops, OLPC is looking to incorporate feedback on Sugar into the design process. "We're taking the tack -- release early, release often," he added.

The Sugar interface features four main views -- home, friends, neighbourhood and activity. It uses stick figure icons to denote the individual user and other children on the network and other icons to indicate particular activities, such as a globe for web browsing or a palette for an art project.

"We're trying to build something that is collaborative first," Blizzard said. Simplicity and accessibility are important factors, but the design team was also keen not to limit the interface’s capabilities. "Walter's take is it doesn't have a ceiling, but it has a very solid floor," Blizzard said, referring to OLPC president Walter Bender.

A child can start from the “home” view, where they can specify user preferences such as colour, and then move to the “friends” view to see which of their friends are on the network and what they are doing. The child can also chat with their friends. The “neighbourhood” view shows everyone connected to the mesh network and the activities they are engaged in. At any point, the child can also choose to join in with group activities.

Each laptop can act as a node in a mesh peer-to-peer ad hoc network, so that if one laptop is directly accessing the internet, other machines in the network can share the online connection when they are switched on.

The “activity” view allows the child to focus on a specific activity using the laptop's full-screen mode. There is also a “journal” view that can be thought of as another activity, where the child can see what he or she has created on the desktop, save and add to that content, and share it with friends.

A frame around the views is equivalent to the menu bar on more traditional computer user interfaces. The child can click on people, places and things around the right, left and top sides of the frame, while the bottom side is reserved for accessing activities. There is also a context-sensitive search bar on the top of the frame so the child can easily locate things on the desktop.

The laptop's operating system is a scaled-down version of Red Hat's Fedora Core 6 Linux distribution. Sugar also includes a web browser based on the Mozilla Foundation's Gecko rendering engine.

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