SAN JOSE, Calif. Forget the $100 computer. Cliff Schmidt hopes to address the digital divide with a $5 digital audio recorder.
Schmidt's non-profit agency, Literacy Bridge, is about to produce 100 prototype devices for a pilot program in one of the poorest sections of Ghana. The current design actually costs $12 to produce so, true to his open-source background, Schmidt is reaching out to engineers for help fine tuning the hardware and writing open-source software for it.
"We want to make this open so people can critique it," said Schmidt. "We'd love to get feedback from hardware engineers on how we could do this better or cheaper."
The Talking Book is a battery operated digital recorder run by a 96 MHz 16-bit microprocessor with a 256 Mbyte microSD card and 16-bit DAC and ADC for audio support. Schmidt hopes the device can be used by local groups to spread health and farming information as well as a tool for teaching basic literacy.
Schmidt has been involved in volunteer work for several years, focusing most recently on attacking the problem of illiteracy many believe is a root of poverty. He took a University of Washington class in early literacy education and consulted with experts for ideas on how to apply his technical background to the problem.
"The importance of having someone read to you at an early age is very critical. Several studies have shown the effectiveness of that experience," he said. But it is not unusual in the poorest sections of Africa to see classes of 60 students or more in the early elementary schools where reading and writing are taught, he added
Last summer, Schmidt travelled to Ghana, bringing a variety of devices such as digital audio recorders to see how they might be used. Non-profit agencies there said they would like such devices to spread information about best farming practices and how to prevent the spread of AIDS as well as use in literacy education.
Schmidt started his non-profit reaching out to a handful of fellow engineers and business people for help. "We spent a lot of time brainstorming about all the alternative devices such as voice recorders, community radio or simple cellphones," he said.
"We talked to the people at One Laptop Per Child about using their XO system, but we decided we wanted a much cheaper device," Schmidt said. "We go into places where there is no access to the Internet or even electricity, some of the poorest places in the world."
The group decided to build its own voice recorder for several reasons. It aimed to hit the $5-10 price of a flashlight or transistor radio that people in these areas can manage to buy. They also wanted a source of persistent storage for on-demand use with zero cost for storing additional information—a factor that eliminated cassette recorders. The devices also needed to run off the D-sized carbon-zinc batteries popular in the area.
Eventually the group foresees a sort of sneaker network forming around village kiosks with updated audio files that could be downloaded. Schmidt also wants to provide a version of the recorder running on rechargeable AA batteries, so local entrepreneurs could provide a service of recharging the players based on purchasing a small solar panel, regulator and some rechargeable batteries.
"We've got some ideas for the kiosk design down on a paper, but we won't have time to finish them until after the pilot project which will not use them," he said.
The audio recorder was designed on a shoestring budget of less than $80,000 and about 4,500 volunteer hours of work, Schmidt said. Literacy Bridge was recently awarded 5019(c)(3) status, so it can apply for grants to build pilot units and finish the kiosk design.
Schmidt wants user countries to be able to afford to buy the recorders, rechargers and kiosks as needed at cost. "We want to do this in a way which is sustainable within the country where it's used," he said, noting the group plans a second pilot outside Bangalore, India.
"There are a lot of things we don't know and we don't expect to get things right the first time," he said, explaining the approach of starting with small pilot programs to help refine the group's approach.
An engineer by background, Schmidt worked on nuclear submarines in the Navy and held several jobs as a developer and program manager at Microsoft before moving to work in the open source community where he served as a board director for the Apache Software Foundation.
"A couple years ago I felt I would get more out of life if did more for people that are not getting enough attention," Schmidt said. "People in half the world, for no fault of their own, have fewer resources that we do and have to fight to keep their children alive.
"Addressing that injustice can also be a fun technical challenge," Schmidt said. "This is the most fun job I have ever had."