Mary Lou Jepsen was founding chief technology officer of One Laptop per Child (OLPC), an organisation whose mission is to deliver low-cost, mesh-networked laptops en masse to children in developing countries.
The XO laptop is the lowest-cost, lowest-power and the most environmentally friendly laptop ever made. It has received numerous awards, drawn widespread global attention, and spurred the new class of compact laptops - aka netbooks - which is expected to grow to over 50 million units by 2010.
In early 2008, after three years with OLPC, Jepsen left to start a for-profit company, Pixel Qi, to commercialise some of the technologies she invented at OLPC. She told the Etech audience that low powered display screens are the real show-stopper to overcome in designing small portable computer platforms.
Jepsen said that the conventional LCD screens in computers are just miniature LCD TVs. That's perfect, if all you want to do is watch movies all day, sitting in a darkened room, with the device plugged in. Her new ideas for LCD (liquid crystal display) screens include technology to absorb natural light sources to brighten screens. That helps save battery life as it reduces the need for a backlight, which is used to light up conventional laptop screens. 'Instead of cranking up the backlight to fight sunlight or the light of the office overhead fluorescent tubes, we realized we could use the brilliant ambient light in the image itself, saving power,' said Jepsen.
Jepsen gave the audience the background on how she arrived at these conclusions. She told of her work on single-panel field sequential projection display systems, and of co-founding Microdisplay, the first company whose sole effort was the development of tiny displays, in 1995. In 2003, she went to work at Intel as the chief technology officer of their Display Division. In January 2005, Jepsen joined Nicholas Negroponte to lead the design, partnering, development, and manufacture of the laptop. For the entire first year of the effort she was the only employee of OLPC.
Jepsen elaborated on her premise that CPUs are no longer important, nor is the operating system. Portable computers are all about the screen. Low power consumption of the screen, one of the more power-hungry components on a laptop, could lead to cheaper and lighter laptops. She said that instead of putting six battery cells into this model, they'll try fewer or use less-powerful cells, making the machine lighter and cheaper, while the battery life is exactly the same.
Jepsen explained some background facts about the state of small platform designs. Typical laptop screens cost about $100, compared to the CPU which at the low end has hit $10. They cause the largest drain on the battery, are difficult to read for hours on end, don't have integrated touch screens and electronics, and aren't sunlight readable.
Jepsen says the new company, Pixel Qi, will move forward with screen innovations in these areas using the existing LCD factories. However, they'll incorporate clever conceptual design changes that allow her company to move from idea to high volume mass production in less than a year, as she did with the screen for the OLPC laptop. The environmentally friendly screens will be available for mini-laptops and ebook readers in high volume mass production in mid-2009. Jepsen said mainstream laptop screens will be available in 2010. She claims that they will get to larger power savings later so the screen can enable much longer battery life. To do that Pixel Qi will need the manufacturers to make changes in the motherboard, which can happen in 2010-11.
An ambitious agenda for any start up to accomplish in so short a time frame. However, Jepsen does have the proven track record of accomplishments that make this leap forward possible.
After her speech, Jepsen had a crowd of folks asking specific questions about how to improve their unannounced small computers.X
One Laptop Per Child
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