Ars technica reported yesterday on a demonstration of the OLPC XO "Sugar" interface. I have to admit that this is one of the few pieces of the OLPC project for which I've been able to muster much enthusiasm. Overlooking the variety of potential and real problems with OLPC, the user interface provides a really unique, intuitive use of mesh networking and shared resources. The entire user interface, in fact, is based around the idea of "zoom levels," ranging from the single application with which a user is working at a given moment (the highest zoom) to a view of everyone and their shared documents/applications in the mesh network.
The ease with which users can turn this interface to sharing and collaborating on documents could have very significant applications, whether in developed or developing countries. The software itself would certainly be worth some exploration, even if the XO computer is something you'd rather not have in your classroom. Every user has a simple avatar to identify themselves on the network. As the article notes,
The XO avatar becomes an important part of this system when customized with inner and outer colors, since collaboration is built into all of the Sugar applications (or "activities," as the project prefers to call them). By choosing to share a document, image, or file, it becomes visually available to any friends on the network, and its icon takes on the color scheme of its owner. The team showed off a word processor document being shared and simultaneously edited between the laptops, with changes appearing instantly across all four screens as they were made on one laptop.
While collaboration at this level is possible to some extent now, the ease with which OLPC allows it happen and the intuitive manner in which the software utilizes "abstraction and social networking" to help students work together is remarkable. We all know that the way we use computers is changing quickly as we look at increased mobility and a growing set of tools for staying connected (even the military now has a social network for sharing and managing DOD electronic resources). Think what you will of OLPC, it has certainly tapped into this shift. Now if I can just get Sugar to run on some old PCs at my elementary schools...