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Introducing Nell

Between now and January CES, Chris Ball and I will be building Nell for the OLPC XO-3 tablet. Nell is a name, not an acronym, but if you want to pronounce it as "Narrative Environment for Learning Learning," I won't stop you.

Nell's development will be demo-oriented—we're going to try to write the most interesting bits first and learn as we go—so don't be upset if you don't see support right away for legacy Sugar activities ("Sweet Nell"), robust sharing support, mesh networking, or whatever your favorite existing feature is. They'll come, but the new crazy stuff is what we need to evaluate first.

Here are four of the big ideas behind Nell, along with pointers to some of our sources of inspiration.

Narrative. I probably don't need to restate that Neil Stephenson's "The Diamond Age" has been hugely influential, and we also owe a large debt to interactive fiction and the Boston IF group in particular. (Check out the talks from our "Narrative Interfaces day" at OLPC.) Wide Ruled (conference paper) and Mark Riedl at Georgia Tech have demonstrated interesting approaches to story representation. I'm also looking forward to the results of the Experimental Game Play group's September Story Game competition.

Emotion. The Radiolab podcast "Talking To Machines" crystallized my thinking about emotionally-attractive environments. The discussion with Caleb Chung, the creator of Furby, is particularly apropos. Caleb's goal is to make things which kids want to "play with for a long time," and he contributes his three rules for creating things which "feel alive": it must (1) feel and show emotions, (2) be aware of itself and its environment, and (3) have behaviors which change over time. Furby's pursuit of these goals include expressive eyes and ears, crying when held upside down, reacting to loud noises, and gradually switching from Furbish to English for its utterances. A living thing emits a constant stream of little surprises. Expect to see Nell put the XO-3's microphone and accelerometer to good use.

Talking and Listening. The "Talking To Machines" podcast also discusses ELIZA and Cleverbot, which dovetails with my interest in the popular Speak activity for Sugar and related toys like Talking Tomcat for mobile phones. The key insight here is that a little bit of "cheap trick" AI can go a long way toward making a personable and engaging system. We want Nell to feel like a friend. Recent work by the Common Sense Computing Initiative at MIT's Media Lab shows how we can reset this on a sounder basis and use mostly-unstructured input to allow the system to grow and learn (creating "behaviors changing over time"). In particular, I'll cite ConceptNet for its database and practical NLP tools, and inspiration from "Empathy Buddy," "StoryFighter," and the other projects described in their Beating Common Sense paper. It's also worth noting that open source speech tools are good and getting better (the VoxForge site points to most of them); also interesting is this technique for matching a synthesized voice to that of the user.

Collecting, nurturing, and rewarding. Collector games such as Pocket Frogs and Flower Garden are sticky activities which encourage kids to come back to the device and continue working toward a goal over a long period of time. Memrise is educational software illustrating this technique: its users tend a garden of flowers by mastering a set of flash cards. Nell will incorporate the sticky aspects of such games, possibly also integrating the Mozilla Open Badges infrastructure into an achievement/reward system.

I hope this has given you a general sense of the direction of our Nell project. In future blog posts I'll drill down into implementation details, demonstration storyboards, and other more concrete facets of Nell.

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Wow. Have I not being attention, or is this a huge sea change from the constructivist learning approach what I think of as very OLPC? Very exciting to see.

I think the ideal would be something like "constructivist, but with someone around to keep you engaged with interesting questions". :)

It's definitely a departure from the past, but I don't think of it as a departure from constructionism, per se. The learner is still primarily self-directed, and still learning by making things. But we're trying to provide better guidance and incentives. Think of it as a kit of Legos, but we also give you the booklet showing all the cool things you can make, and we give you prizes for making a castle, a boat, a car, etc. No one's forcing you to do anything, but there are plenty of suggestions about things to do and incentives to keep you coming back to try more things. Maybe it's the "lego club" or "lego scouts" rather than just a box o' legos.

Nell for US immigrant children

Is Nell available for use in the US? I have several high school-aged students who are refugee immigrants and other special immigrant foster students with little-to-no foundational literacy or schooling experience. They are learning English. One is self-taught literate in Spanish (not his native tongue). I got shivers when reading the white paper on Nell's successes thus far and would love to pilot a Nell Tablet or just the software on our own school laptops!

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