An Open Source 8-Bit Computer to Save the World

At a recent local LUG I regularly attend, Braddock Gaskill gave a wonderful presentation on an open source 8-bit computer he had created. This was his first public debut of the device and every person in attendance was enthralled. Later, we met over coffee since I wanted to let him know (and ask if it was ok) that I thought his device would make for a great piece for Linux Journal. Braddock agreed and we started to chat about both the Humane Reader & Humane PC.

The goal of the project was to create an extendable, hackable 8-bit general computing platform, designed for both hobbyists and developing nations, that can be displayed on televisions. The Humane Reader can be used as an ebook reader and comes with a 2GB SD card where you can put about 5000 ebooks or, roughly, the entire contents of Wikipedia. This allows anyone to bring a 5000 book library or all of Wikipedia into a home or school that does not have access to internet content. One of the main features he wanted was hackability. The screen is displayed in typical shell fashion. There is a keyboard, which is optional, since it has a four-button controller that allows you to go left or right on the numbers/letters display for selection. One of the coolest tidbits about the device is that the number/letter selection interface is actually using the Morse code sequence- so all the amateur radio fans are going to love this device even more. What's even more amazing is that Braddock is shooting for a price point of $20US for the Humane Reader! There is also the Humane PC which allows you to hack on a smaller scale which uses an 8-bit microcomputer. Both the Humane Reader and Humane PC are based on open source software and hardware.

The project's design requirements included needing NTSC/PAL output, an SD card interface (w/FAT file system), a cheap input interface (buttons) and a micro-usb adapter for power (there is also an optional keyboard). The AVR ecosystem is built using Arduino. The Arduino platform provided access to a wide variety of extensions ("shields") and its software provides an educationally-oriented "easy" IDE. It also has an excellent community around it which provide tutorials, forums, documentation, etc. Hence, Arduino provided Shields, IDE and was software-compatible. The project chose a FAT file system so that you could dump data directly onto the device from the PC and he implemented a solution for improved seek times on the device. Braddock wanted the device powered through USB for several reasons - 1/3 of the world owns a cell phone, Micro-USB is the worldwide cell phone charger standard (which means it allows him to keep his costs low). Braddock took the Micro-USB 5v power connector and had to convert it to 3.3v.

This is a wonderful project that could, potentially, have far-reaching and positive effects on the global community. For those of us who believe in open source and open standards as a vehicle for having a positive impact on our world, this is a great marriage. You could do many things with the device (as explained above). Not unlike so many other great open source projects, assistance is welcomed. Braddock is looking for help in various areas- testing on older televisions (as long as they have composite video out), could use contacts with NGOs and usability testing on the keyboard/controller. You can read all about the project, view presentation slides and see a video of the presentation taken while at SGVLUG at the Humane Informatics website.

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