MiiPC gives parents an Orwellian overview

March 28, 2013 | 11:20

Tags: #android #nineteen-eighty-four #privacy #sbc #single-board-computer #soc #system-on-chip

Companies: #arm #miipc

Young Song, the co-founder of budget PC brand eMachines, has turned to Kickstarter to find his latest project: an Android-based single-board computer designed for families who want to control what their kids get up on that there Big Bad Internet.

Song, who cashed out big when he sold his budget-friendly PC building company eMachines to Gateway in 2004 for a whopping $265 million, is seeking $50,000 through the crowd-funding site to mass-produce a Marvell Armada-based single-board computer - well, ignoring a small mezzanine board for the USB ports - that comes with a cleverly customised version of Google's Android mobile OS.

The hardware behind the MiiPC, the trademarked term chosen for Song's latest project, isn't anything particularly special: the oddly-shaped plastic casing conceals a single-board computer powered by a Marvell Armada 1500 system-on-chip (SoC) processor featuring a dual-core PJ4B ARMv7 1.2GHz processor and a GC1000 graphics processor. Interestingly, the chip hides an extra component: the Qdeo Video Post Processor, designed for the sort of tasks you would normally associate with a set-top box or smart TV - hardly surprising, when you learn that Marvell designed the chip specifically for those markets, with the Armada 1500 to be found inside Lenovo smart TVs and Google TV 2.0 reference designs.

In addition to the Armada SoC, the MiiPC includes 1GB of RAM - with an option to expand this to 2GB if desired - and 4GB of internal NAND flash, which is expandable using a front-facing SD card slot or one of the two USB ports on the rear of the device. Ethernet connectivity is included as standard, with a wired 10/100 port and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi built-in alongside Bluetooth 4.0. Finally, an HDMI port with 1080p support and analogue connections for speakers and a microphone make up the rest of the rear of the device, along with the DC jack for the external power supply.

So far, so like the ever-increasing number of ARM-based, Android-powered mini computers hitting the market every day. Where the MiiBox differs is in its software: a customised version of Android 4.2 that allows parents fine-grained control over what their kids get up to.

'MiiPC came out of my experience with my two kids. We think the internet has opened up all sorts of possibilities and I love that my children have access to information for their classes at the tip of their fingertips,' explained Song of his creation. 'However at the same time the internet poses significant challenges for parents. Traditional software or hardware solutions simply block kids from going to certain websites. This is inherently limiting and it also does not address what we believe is a key challenge with kids and the internet: its addictiveness. We developed MiiPC as a simple and elegant solution. It allows you to monitor your child's activity, but at the same time start an open and honest conversation with them about the content they're looking at and the time they spend on different tasks.'

The secret lies in a management app designed to run on a parent's tablet or smartphone. Compatible with iOS and Android devices, the app provides parents with the ability to both monitor what their kids are doing on the MiiPC, but also to lock down individual apps - either permanently, or based on a timer. A user account can, for example, be allowed to access Facebook for a maximum of two hours a day, or be prevented from loading Angry Birds until their homework is finished.

The somewhat Orwellian concept appears to be going down well with parents: since its launch just two days ago, the project has smashed past its $50,000 target with an impressive $87,161 raised at the time of writing. Much of this cash comes from parents eager to get their hands on the device: the 300 'early bird' discounted MiiPCs on offer for $89 have all sold out, with 300 more buyers plonking down cash for the full-priced $99 edition. The company has also received investment from five individuals looking to get the 'Developer Special' - two MiiPC units and access to the application programming interface (API) behind the parental control app, in order to build their own extensions for the service.

The first MiiPCs are expected to launch in July to early adopters, ahead of a more wide-scale roll-out in September. Thus far, Young's company - ZeroDesktop - has not detailed retail availability in the US or internationally. More details, and a video demo, are available on the project's Kickstarter page.
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