In short: oh my god, look what I get to play with!My freshman advising seminar is called Designing Consumer Electronics; we discuss good design, bad design, really unusual design (our advisor has an entire slideshow of the weirdest products he finds at CES each year) and how products go from prototypes to the final version.
Which is very cool and all, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the fact that our advisor’s lab, Object-Based Media, was one of the main labs involved in the development of the XO laptop, the hundred(-ish)-dollar ultra-rugged laptop from the non-profit One Laptop Per Child.At our last seminar, our advisor explained the various iterations of the laptop, from simple foamcore mockups to 3D-printed realistic-weight dummies, and what new innovations had been required to meet the specifications of the laptop. (The specs were absolutely grueling — the laptop screen can be exposed to direct UV light for months on end without degrading; it can be dropped from four or five feet off the ground from any direction without breaking; it can be taken apart and have its components replaced by a 10-year-old with basic technical skills; it can go half a day on a single charge…and on and on and on.)Some of the design choices were beyond ingenious: the two rabbit-ear wifi antennas on either side double as the latch mechanism for the computer, which means that by default the antennas are raised when you start up the computer. The latch-ears cover up the USB ports and headphone jack when they’re closed, to protect the ports from dust and rain. (The laptops are also capable of creating a mesh network, so that one laptop acts as a wi-fi relay for laptops out of range of the access point.)
The handle has three separate holes so that it can be carried in one hand or on a finger — or, our professor told us, some girls in Uruguay discovered they could also tie a long ribbon onto the two small holes, and so they carry their laptops over their shoulders.The laptop folds down into a tablet for playing games, watching video, or reading books. It comes stocked with a massive selection of classic books from Project Gutenberg, along with an abbreviated snapshot of Wikipedia (and access to standard Wikipedia via the Internet, of course.)
The coolest function I’ve found so far is the oscilloscope: voltmeters and other sensors can be connected to the microphone jack and viewed with the oscilloscope progam, so the laptops can be used in science classes to take measurements.
It’s a gorgeous piece of hardware, built inside and out around the idea of intuitive design. Everyone in the class got to take home a laptop to use and play around with for the semester, and even just opening it up and clicking around for a few minutes, I was really impressed with how easy it is to pick-up-and-play. Most of all, though, every function shows how much care went into the design, and it’s clever and creative and surprising at every turn — it’s an absolute joy to use.