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A $45 Tablet Computer?

March 23, 2012  - By 0 Comments

At the GIS In Action 2012 conference last week, I asked a Google presenter if he thought the mobile phone is going to be the primary mobile device people will carry. He said, “No, it’s going to be the tablet computer.”

Certainly the Apple iPad, since its introduction in April 2010, has sparked the tablet computer business. Google’s Android operating system has done its share of stimulating the tablet business, and just in the last few months, the fantastic success of the Kindle Fire (based on the Android operating system) has given Apple something to think about. I bought my wife a Kindle Fire for Christmas a few months ago. For the most part, it has replaced her notebook computer for the majority of her computing activities.

It’s not that the Kindle has amazing functionality and zippy computer power. The beauty of the Kindle Fire is that it’s inexpensive ($199), and has the basic features that make it very useful; web browsing, email, and ebook reading. The previous ebook readers by Kindle lacked web browsing and email functionality, so they were limited to being pure ebook readers. You can bet that the Kindle Fire has Apple thinking twice charging $600 for an iPad.

Continuing the subject of low-priced tablet computers, the I-slate, developed by the Institute for Sustainable and Applied Infodynamics (ISAID), a joint venture of Houston’s Rice University and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, is being developed for the educational environment and has a targeted price of $45. Yes, $45 U.S. dollars.

Check out the following story:

India’s Mahabubnager District, Indian non-profit Villages for Development and Learning Foundation (ViDAL), Rice University and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore announced that the district plans to adopt 50,000 of the low-cost electronic I-slate tablet computer into middle and high school classrooms over the next three years.


According to the announcement, the I-slate, a low-cost learning tool designed for classrooms with no electricity and too few teachers, is under joint development by the I-slate Consortium, which includes hardware and software experts at Rice and NTU, social outreach partners from ViDAL, and a Los Angeles-based design team.

The district of Mahabubnagar in the Indian state Andhra Pradesh has about 500,000 students in government schools. Consortium leaders and Mahabubnagar officials said they hope to supply I-slates to at least 10 percent of the students over the next three years.

“The I-slate project is about empowering local communities with education and knowledge,” said Rajeswari Pingali, ViDAL founding chairwoman. “Based on two years of lab-to-school testing rounds, today we have a fully functional I-slate which will be adapted by the district education department for expanding the footprint of technology and bringing learning opportunities backed by the latest in modern communication technology for the benefit of rural communities.”

According to the announcement, about 30 fourth-generation I-slates were delivered this month to a class of 10- to 13-year-olds at the Mohamed Hussainpalli Village School, which is located in Mahabubnagar District, about 70 miles from Hyderabad. The new I-slates are the first to feature a new “sense-optimized” user interface designed to improve educational outcomes in rural India.

“Sense optimization is a systematic way of improving the user experience by taking advantage of our knowledge of how the human brain processes the information so we can invest the minimum amount of resources for the effectiveness level we’re trying to reach,” said I-slate creator Krishna Palem, a professor at both Rice and NTU. “The I-slate is not a tablet computer. It is a device designed for a single purpose — education in a low-resource environment.”

Mahabubnagar is primarily rural and has a population of around 4 million. District officials plan to use the I-slate in middle and high school classrooms. With sufficient volume, the unit cost for the I-slate will be around $45 (56 Singapore dollars), Palem said.

Palem, Rice’s Ken and Audrey Kennedy Professor of Computing, initially conceived the I-slate in 2008. He thought power consumption would be the biggest hurdle, because many rural schools in India lack electricity, and a solar-powered I-slate would need to run on no more than three watts of power. However, as soon as students in Mohamed Hussainpalli Village began testing early prototypes, it became obvious that usability and effectiveness would also be a challenge.

The I-slate’s Los Angeles-based design team, which includes Marc Mertens, CEO of the Seso Media Group, and project leader Henrik Andersson, volunteered their time to work with ViDAL, NTU specialists in human-computer interaction and Rice student interns. The designers evaluated feedback from children at Mohamed Hussainpalli Village School and spent thousands of hours scrutinizing the placement and flow of features and the way children interacted with the I-slate both visually and by touch.

It was reported that the designers incorporated elements from video games and social networking to draw students in and hold their interest. For example, a colorful cartoon creature in the corner of the I-slate screen watches the student and changes expression based upon the child’s actions. The more the student studies and the better her grades, the happier the creature appears. (EDITOR’S NOTE: to see the user interface in action, watch the video linked at the end of this release.)

The I-slate is a joint project of the Rice-NTU Institute for Sustainable and Applied Infodynamics (ISAID). Palem, who directs ISAID, is a Nanyang Visiting Professor at NTU.

“It is very exciting to see the early work on the I-slate expand to a larger user base,” said ISAID affiliate Vincent Mooney, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Georgia Tech, who worked on the I-slate as a visiting faculty member at NTU.

According to the announcement, the hardware and graphic content for the I-slate are being developed in tandem because they will ultimately use a revolutionary low-power computer chip — another of Palem’s inventions. The new chip, which could be ready for use in the I-slate by 2013, will cut power requirements in half and allow the device to run on solar power from small panels similar to those used on handheld calculators.

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Eric Gakstatter

About the Author:

Eric Gakstatter has been involved in the GPS/GNSS industry for more than 20 years. For 10 years, he held several product management positions in the GPS/GNSS industry, managing the development of several medium- and high-precision GNSS products along with associated data-collection and post-processing software. Since 2000, he's been a power user of GPS/GNSS technology as well as a consultant with capital management companies; federal, state and local government agencies; and private companies on the application and/or development of GPS technology. Since 2006, he's been a contributing editor to GPS World magazine and the Geospatial Solutions website. He is the editor of Geospatial Solutions Monthly, a weekly newsletter focused on geospatial technologies. Follow Eric on Twitter at @GPSGIS_Eric.

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