The chance to use their skills in order to facilitate social change is a professional aim treasured by many generation Xers who find themselves at career crunch points.

Mary Lou Jepsen jumped in wholeheartedly and continues to push the envelope on the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. Specifically how to optimise energy demands for the laptop's 10.1 inch display.

With a background in arts and engineering, Mary Lou's expertise has recently resulted in some super elegant solutions to this problem. The essential design challenge is that the screen represents the most energy greedy and expensive component of a device intended for mass distribution and use in countries with unreliable mains power availability.

Following a holistic design process means abstract thinking, specifically about user pathways and behaviours. In this case, how to charge the device itself (manufacturing) and how to maximise or prolong the benefit of that charge once achieved (recycling).  This cycle must be repeatable throughout the lifetime of the product and is the engine that drives how the laptop is used.

We all know that turning off bluetooth and reducing screen brightness on our laptops and phones reduces power consumption. How about being able to use them in distinct settings, each one embracing a different user behaviour? The new OLPC screen can switch between colour and black and white, backlighting on or off.

Plus it has a charge to use ratio of 1:10. That means one minute of charge gives ten minutes of use (the ipad and macbook pros charge at about 1:2 by the way). Furthermore the power requirement is so low that the obstacle of where that charge should come from in the first place was solved by... a pull cord... like Woody's "Reach for the sky" in Toy Story.

The OLPC project is fairly unique in even wanting to think about the disparity in access to computers across the world. The default mechanism is to fall back on free market economics and tell those in the less developed world they'll just have to wait until they can afford it. What Mary Lou Jepsen and her colleagues are doing is destroying this basic assumption with a computer that is the size of a textbook and lighter than a lunchbox.

Converging technical skills to address engineering complications is an everyday activity for many sharp hardware scientists. Merging holistic design processes with the global inequality agenda while liaising with national governments and Taiwanese display makers and keeping user needs uppermost in mind takes someone extraordinary.

Mary Lou Jepsen will be at TEDx Brussels on December 6th

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