2013-11-19

Co.Labs

Former Journalist Creates A Homebrew Computer Buildable In 107 Seconds

Using Raspberry Pi as a platform, a company called Kano wants to be the Ikea of computers: cheap, self-built, and global. (Let’s hope the instructions are better.)



The halcyon days of the late 1970s birthed companies like Apple and Microsoft out of the homebrew computer movement, wherein people in garages used cheap commodity parts to build computers--and then wrote the software to run them.

These days, electronics are becoming increasingly like modern automobiles--fully sealed and most definitely not user serviceable. But when accessibility dies, so does the ability to tinker.

Kano is a computer which anyone can build. Based on the Raspberry Pi, a $25, credit-card sized computer for kids running GNU/Linux, Kano’s DIY kit adds all the peripherals and software you need to make a fully functioning machine and then learn how to program on it. Kano launched on Kickstarter today at a price of $99.

“People of all ages had this latent hunger to look inside a computer,” says Alex Klein, cofounder of Kano. “I think that's one of the reasons that so many people bought a Raspberry Pi. The problem is that the people who could actually do something with it weren't actually the target of the (Raspberry Pi) foundation. They were hackers and engineers, people who are already comfortable with this stuff. We wanted to make it accessible to everyone.”

Klein is a former journalist who started learning Linux a couple of years ago. “I thought of myself more as a creative and programming was for engineers,” he says. “Whatever you think about software and the world of tech, whether you think it's intimidating or geeky or unfathomable, we want to convince you that it's just a different medium like clay or paint.”

Once booted, Kano runs a customized version of Debian Linux called Kano OS, which was inspired by game console dashboards and aims to make Linux less intimidating to beginners as well as improving the Pi’s performance. The Raspberry Pi has been criticized for being difficult to set up. Configuring Wi-Fi, for example, is much simpler in Kano OS than on the Pi and boot time has been reduced to 10 seconds.

Also included is a visual programming environment called Kano Blocks, which introduces the user to programming by modifying games. In fact, the whole setup and usage of the machine is framed as a series of game levels through which the user can progress. Kano’s team spent a year testing the product with kids, although the computer can be used by any age group. “We designed this with children because most of us only have the experience with this stuff that a young child has,” says Klein. “Lego has always been the guiding spirit for us, for the software as well. The idea was to create something which has that kind of step-by-step, call-and-response fun of Lego. You do it yourself, you put little pieces together, and you combine them in complex ways.” This is part of the reason that Kano Blocks focuses on games like Minecraft and music.

Several major changes were made to the software based on workshops where kids used Kano Blocks. “We tried doing something that was more like (MIT’s programming environment for kids) Scratch, which was to have kids work for 30 minutes and at the end they had a simple game,” says Klein. “But the approach that was way more electrifying for the kids, was to give them a simple game like Pong and give them the opportunity to change it and remake it.” The user can use Kano Blocks to modify the Pong implementation to change the speed of the ball, increase the size of the paddles, or even cheat. An implementation of Sonic Pi, which teaches programming concepts by creating new sounds, is also included. “The main objective of the kit,“ explains Klein, “is to give people a way to make something cool and enjoy themselves and then to teach them what that meant--'What you just did, that's programming.'"

One major difference between Kano Blocks and Scratch is that Blocks outputs Python and JavaScript. “I love Scratch but it's self-contained,” says Klein. “The problem is in transitioning to something like Python. We have found that we lose everyone.” Showing the code for the same function in Python makes the transition a bit more obvious, although how a user should progress with Kano after completing all the current “levels” is not entirely clear.

Kano is thinking global from the beginning. The documentation is already available in Spanish and Arabic with more languages to follow. “We want to be able to build a global company which can bring these computer kits anywhere in the world,” says Yonatan Raz-Fridman, Kano's CEO. “To New York, but at the same time to Nairobi, Freetown, New Zealand, Latin America. Not just say that when we are big, after we have made a billion dollars, that we will start looking at the rest of the world. We want to start looking at the rest of the world today.”

[Images courtesy of Kano]