Hacking The OLPC Now And The Future

While we haven’t talked about the OLPC XO laptop much here, don’t think we haven’t had our eyes on its developments. Originally shipping last November, this unit captured the interest of many for its humanitarian goal, low cost, and potential hackability. After the break, let’s take a look at what has been done with this device and poke at the prototype for version 2.

To start with, every unit ships with Sugar (a custom Linux flavor) created specifically for the OLPC. You can emulate the OS without a laptop as all images have been made available to the public. Pouring over the official wiki we find pages like Hacking Sugar but not a whole lot else. A few guys did manage to get Doom to run on it as we see in the below video.

The OLPC team has setup a developers key procedure if you are interested in accessing the firmware and modifying the bootup options. Some laptops are shipping without the firmware locked down. However, all laptops included in the Give One, Get One program have firmware security enabled.

We did find an interesting telepresence application: in conjunction with a iRobot Create you can control the camera/microphone and even give this little guy some mobility. In this example, all controls are available through a nice simple web interface.

While we are still waiting for more interesting hacks to surface for the XO, OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte has unveiled the prototype for version 2. Pictured below this device almost looks too pretty to hack. With two touch sensitive displays, we can’t tell if this is the world’s largest Nintendo DS or just the work of an over ambitious designer. Even with these new bells and whistles they hope to keep the cost low and continue to encourage open source development. In fact, looking at these images one can’t help but feel this device may be embraced as an open source iPhone meets Kindle. We’re not looking forward to touch typing on a rigid surface though.

We’ve actually got an XO lying around the office; what would you like to see us do with it? Please, let us know in the comments.

19 thoughts on “Hacking The OLPC Now And The Future

  1. You could send it to me. :) As for typing on the “new” version, it probably wouldn’t be too much different from the first one. Those little rubber keys don’t have too much travel do they? I read somewhere the other day the developers of Sugar are going to make it more open to anyone who wants to use it. I guess the new folks running the olpc project are starting to sleep around with microsoft and windows. I wonder if you could get the os to run natively on an eee? Hmm………

  2. I gotta say that I dearly love my xo-1, but the hackability is a little lacking. The software is significantly sub-par, but if you move to a different linux distro you cut out some hardware features. I guess all it takes is time (free and open market..)
    GPS receiver – I’ve confirmed that the xo kills GPS signals within ~8″ to the laptop (serious RF leakage, perhaps?).
    On-board serial/console – it’s on-board TTL, needing an IC to convert to serial or USB.
    VGA connector – was on earlier motherboard prototypes, but now it’s scattered/not easily accessible. Also only outputs 1200×900, but maybe the software can change that.
    Overclocking – mine runs a little snappier on boot, but it really cuts into battery life.

  3. i think you should add in some fancy gizmos like a miniature projector, a multi-touch trackpad, etc. and figure out how to run osx86 leopard on it! that would be cooler than ben heckendorn’s 360 elite laptop! ok, maybe not quite that cool, but the xo running osx? WAY COOL!

  4. I almost feel that developing countries need a functional computer that *isn’t* necessarily intended to be hackable. Let them focus on real tasks that computers can help them do…calculate crop rotations, design mechanical parts and structures, communicate within a larger community, learn about health and nutrition, manage finances, reinforce mathematics, history, and language skills. Focusing on hacking and developing from the beginning almost puts too much responsibility in their hands to create the applications they need. Throw them an OLPC, a copy of stroustroup’s c++ programming language book, and a case of Mountain Dew? The idea is nice, but hackers are usually fat. Until your nation can afford to have a lot of fat people, you can’t have true hackers.

  5. I totally agree with mace, but hackable/open hardware doesn’t necessarily imply that the final software package is “exposed” to the user. The most powerful software dev tool it needs, if any, is maybe a Python interpreter or DHTML in the browser.

    As for what to use your XO-1 for, I’m a little boring in that I would probably only use it for e-books, quick notes/software prototyping on the go, and maybe a few games/emulators. And web/email, if the WiFi works with normal hot-spots…

  6. I love my little XO (I’m typing on it right now). Sugar is great for kids, but sucks for power users. However it’s a snap to instal xfce and from there hack to your heart’s content. I’ve got it set up to use the gamepad keys as a virtual mouse while in tablet mode.

    About the only hardware I really miss are firewire (not going to happen), bluetooth and maybe a keyboard light. I’m working on jimmying the latter two into the case.

  7. I have almost exclusively used a TouchStream Keyboard by Fingerworks (http://www.fingerworks.com/index.html) until it broke down a view years ago.

    Granted, it is not quite as easy to use as a regular keyboard,, but you can touch type.

    Also, this drawback is easily made up for by the possibility to use gestures in the same spot as you use for typing.

    You can switch from keyboard to mouse without even having to move your hand away from the home row.

  8. I think you should paint it a new color. im thinking black, maybe even with some kind of skull and crossbones. what do you think?

    or maybe just replace the keyboard with a better one. that seems like a progressive hack.

  9. I’d love to be able to use the XO’s built in camera for a home webcam monitor, similar to what homecamera.com does with windows. This could either be in sugar or ubuntu. great website. thx. Rob

  10. Some of the interns this summer are really focused on getting a really solid build of Xubuntu working on the XO.

    Sugar labs (wiki.sugarlabs.org) is working on porting Sugar to Debian, Ubuntu, Gentoo and a few other distros as well.

    There is already a package in Ubuntu 8.04 for the sugar emulator (thanks Jiri) and Debian has a separately managed package that I don’t know all that much about.

  11. Id like to see a something along the lines of a goblinx distro or damn small linux add bluetooth ,gps is nice ,maybe a wireless card from a cell provider theres also the idea of tinkering with its alternate power sources theres a hand crank so what about a kenetic source as you tote it around or move it charges? just some ideas.

  12. ^dude xp aint gonna run on that thing… think about it when you use xp for like a year and your machine runs like crap no matter how much cleaning you do or virus protection you have. Unbuntu runs like a breeze all day for some reason… maybe they built the thing to work instead of manufacturing failure into the software so everyone would need to replace it every couple of years and pay $150 just to get the machine working again at a crawl. I think they put sugar on this thing so that people in 3rd world countries could have a successfull and positive relationship with a computer at first touch.

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