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Open-source progress in China


Technology has the power to change our lives for the better. But what do you do when technology doesn’t quite work for you? You have two choices – live with it, or change it.

The Micro:Bit is a great piece of tech to help the teaching of coding in schools and colleges. Consisting of a small circuit board about half the size of a credit card, and including a CPU, flash memory, Bluetooth Low Energy, USB, an accelerometer and magnetometer, it has everything kids need to build complex projects.

Its biggest problem outside of Europe and the Americas is its display. A 5x5 LED array is great for the Latin alphabet but it can’t display non-Latin characters such as Chinese. Rather than live with it, one Chinese developer decided to change it.

Meet the Sino:Bit

Naomi Wu is a Cantonese techie who strongly advocates for Open Source and creativity to improve Chinese tech and move it away from simply copying the rest of the world. Naomi saw the Micro:Bit, and a similar device called Calliope, and realized that it wasn’t quite right for the Chinese market. Working together with engineers at Elecrow Technology she developed the Sino:Bit.

The main difference is the upgraded LED matrix from 5x5 to 12x12. This one modification opens up development to non-Latin languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Arabic. Culture plays a huge role in Chinese society, with a strong emphasis on writing, and so the ability to display Chinese writing on a device is hugely important.

Localisation beyond the basics

But it’s not just the display that makes the device more suited to the Chinese market. The octagonal shape is based on the Bagua – the eight trigrams used in ancient Chinese philosophy. The board is also colored Red and Gold – colors that are significant to Chinese culture.

Overall the board is bigger than the Calliope and Micro:Bit, with a few more connectors and ports added, though Naomi points out that in reality, you’d have to add these to make a functioning product and most of the projects that people make will be big enough to cope with the bigger size.

Certified hardware

The Sino:Bit is the first Chinese device ever to be certified by the Open Source Hardware Association (OSHWA), a non-profit organization founded in 2012 that advocates for open-source hardware. The certification aims to offer a simple process for producers of open hardware to indicate that their products meet a uniform and well-defined standard for open-source compliance.

This is a big deal both for China and the rest of the world. Getting millions of Chinese kids thinking about and developing their own projects should lead to some interesting times ahead.


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