Bits and Pieces: Potential Future Scenarios for Children’s Mobile Technology

Bits and Pieces: Potential Future Scenarios for Children’s Mobile Technology

Michael Eisenberg (University of Colorado, USA), Leah Buechley (MIT Media Lab, USA) and Nwanua Elumeze (University of Colorado, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0194-9.ch006
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The reigning portrait of mobile technology for children has, by and large, been founded on a portrait of computing derived from an earlier generation of desktop devices. That is, the recurring image of “mobile computing” employs a full-scale personal computer shrunk down to handheld size (as in a PDA or iPhone). While this image suggests avenues for innovation, it nevertheless reflects a highly constrained view of computing that fails to do justice to the educational possibilities of children’s informal day-to-day activities. This article seeks to challenge the “PDA-centric” view of children’s mobile technology by discussing two major design themes that lead in alternative directions: namely, material computing (endowing physical substrates of various kinds with computational capabilities) and piecewise computing (enhancing mobility through the dissociation of various functional capabilities of traditional computers). In discussing these themes, the authors draw on design projects.
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Introduction: The Portable Von Neumann Machine And Its Discontents

Without attempting to resolve the historical debates as to just who invented which features, it’s fair to say that “computers”–artifacts worthy of that name–have existed now for approximately sixty years. During that time, computational design has undergone a series of successive technological revolutions, resulting in a related series of popular visual images: the room-sized “giant brain” of the ENIAC era, the powerful business machine of the 1960’s, the somewhat more approachable minicomputer of the 1970’s, the desktop personal machine of the past several decades. At every stage of this history, there has been something of a “mainstream view” as to what a computer is supposed to look like; and that view in turn affects our expectations about what (and whom) computers are for. Giant, expensive devices are the exclusive province of elite scientists and military professionals; million-dollar business machines are touched only by the “priesthood” of professionals paid to do so; minicomputers are college-laboratory devices; and personal machines are the property of a vast population of professionals, hobbyists, students, and young children. Clearly, the historical arc in computer design (and its imagery) has been one of increasing availability and democratization.

The advent of an increasing array of mobile computational devices over the past decade has continued this historical pattern. Mobile computational devices in particular are associated, in popular imagery, with the young: it is kids, and younger adults, who carry about mobile computers, phones, and iPods. The contrast between the image of computation sixty years ago and that of today–the contrast between the typical device, the typical application, the typical user–is nothing short of astonishing.

Despite this welcome trend toward democratization and “youth-friendliness” in the image of computational media, there nonetheless remain the constraining after-effects of generations of earlier design. It is fair to say that the assumptions governing most discussions of mobile computing are those derived from imagining a shrunken, lightweight version of the by-now-almost-unconscious von Neumann architecture–the standard design structure followed by computers since its articulation by John von Neumann (1945). Following this logic, a computer–and by extension, a mobile computer–is a device equipped with a CPU, internal memory for storing both programs and data, and input/output elements; and more recently, such devices are inevitably equipped with communication elements to the Internet as well.

In the case of a mobile device, a PDA/iPhone is a good object-to-think-with for these purposes. It may be thought of as a desktop computer, at miniature scale: a tiny screen, a tiny keyboard (sometimes rendered directly on the screen), all bundling a CPU, memory, and Internet connection. Clearly, such devices have myriad uses for education and children’s activities (cf. Rogers & Price, 2007; Rogers & Price, 2009); yet at the same time, the underlying architectural assumptions behind PDAs result in recurring trouble spots for their design. Ching et al. (2009) provide a trenchant listing of several of these issues:

  • Screen size:Screens are by necessity smaller on mobile devices, but if applications are not built specifically with mobile devices in mind, screen content (images and text) may be either too small for viewing and may lead to eyestrain or too large and require constant scrolling.

  • Text entry:Entering large amounts of text is impractical, given the dexterity needed to operate the smaller controls.

  • Battery life: Mobile applications should run on as little power as possible. If there are 30 devices in a classroom on any given day, some of them are bound to need recharging, which could become a nightmare for educators to manage. (p. 34)

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