The OSWALD Project

Open source and education: a match made in computer heaven.

To be true to this open-source model, the OSWALD development team decided to take this model and apply it to both hardware and software. For students to learn through open source, it's important that this extend all the way down to the hardware platforms they use, which is still surprisingly difficult to do.

The OSWALD is a handheld ultra-mobile PC designed to be accessible and affordable to students, while incorporating many new technologies seen in the mobile device market. The OSWALD is an open platform meant to open up the creative space for student projects. With its relatively novel form factor, students are given the opportunity to explore and push the boundaries of computing again, as well as explore contemporary interaction techniques through hardware, such as a touchscreen and accelerometer. The device was carefully designed to balance power and performance with cost, equivalent to a college textbook.

We could have encouraged the use of Netbooks running open-source software. The price point and capabilities of these machines make them a tempting alternative to full laptops. The form factor was important to us for this reason. The device is an auxiliary computing device rather than a desktop or laptop replacement. Students treat their primary computing devices with care; this is where they store their media and do their work. The primary computing platform, therefore, is not a place where we would expect to see a lot of experimentation. The relatively little software customized for this form factor is a benefit to the OSWALD. A student might create or port an interesting piece of software and share it with another student who will appreciate it. With this in mind, students will have a long list of desired features to bring to the platform and are motivated to create better software.

The biggest challenges to building an open platform, such as the OSWALD, are the costs associated with manufacturing it, especially on a small scale. Because this is a university project, the devices basically are manufactured for students' own consumption at this point. For instance, though there is no shortage of companies that can assemble and test these devices, the devices are built by undergraduates. This means there will be positive and negative outcomes. There will be quality issues, and the devices take longer to assemble, but there is a relatively large number of freshman and sophomores working with the devices and, in the process, learning and gaining the confidence to work with computer hardware. Ben Goska, an undergraduate in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and chief hardware developer elaborates: “We only make 300 OSWALDs in a build run. Talking to developers is tricky because most manufacturers are used to numbers in the thousands. We are building these by hand.”

The hardware is also not as optimized as one would expect with commercial support, but there is intentionally a fair bit of redundancy. As Dr Jensen explains:

I'm a user interface researcher. What I want to do is use this device to help students understand the trade-offs between different interface techniques. When you pick a phone, or a mobile device, typically you will have an interaction method chosen for you. For the iPhone, everything is touch. There is no way of doing anything other than by touching the screen. This is a very intuitive, slick interface, but there are instances where it's just a dumb idea. For a certain application, having a separate touch area makes more sense, or a rocker switch, or a joystick. We provide all of these because part of what I want to do is have a device that lets students experiment with all aspects of computing, including the interface. That's the reason for its flexibility. This is just one example of how, for a very specific type of course or curriculum, you can take advantage of that type of flexibility. Even if we didn't have all three capabilities built in to the device, I could plug in a mouse or a joystick, essentially anything, through a USB port that would give me that flexibility, and students can then learn their pros and cons.

At the university level, a cheap and open embedded computing platform can be valuable in multiple ways. At Oregon State University, the Physics Department has taken OSWALDs and ripped them apart to control scientific instruments. The robotics club uses the OSWALD board to control their Mars rover and aerial vehicles. The OSWALD is more robust than a laptop; it has a solid-state drive, which makes it durable. Dr Jensen explains:

We're envisioning, as we go forward, people will be taking some of these devices, taking them apart and refashioning them into whatever they need them to be, whether it's a mini Web server, file server, media server or whether it's embedded in other things. It has enough processing power to do that, and it has very low energy requirements, which make it ideal for embedding in many different applications. It's a general-purpose computing solution for your home market.