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A New Talking Book Prototype is in the Works — a Q&A with Amplio's Senior Software Design Engineer

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

Bill Evans, Amplio's senior software design engineer, discusses our new Talking Book prototype that’s powered by an Arm Cortex-M4 processor and runs on rechargeable batteries

A new Talking Book prototype is in the works! Eagerly awaited, the device will work with rechargeable batteries and be field-tested in Zambia, in partnership with Arm and VSO. Amplio’s senior software design engineer, Bill Evans, shared his insights on digital development, design challenges, the benefits of a Cortex-M4 processor, and more. 

11/04/20 Editor’s note: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Arm volunteers are providing remote support Amplio product development. Read about VSO Zambia’s project here

Bill, first, tell us about Amplio’s design philosophy.

Right from the start, Amplio has followed best practices that now have been identified as Principles for Digital Development. Our technology is open source and designed with and for the user. All of Amplio’s technology is built with consideration for use cases in developing countries, for online and offline contexts, with or without electricity. The Talking Book was selected as a UNESCO Pearson Initiative for Literacy case study and helped inform UNESCO’s guidelines for digital inclusion.

What’s changing with the new Talking Book prototype?

Fundamentally, we’re doing two things: adding a rechargeable battery and switching to an Arm Cortex-M4 processor. Rechargeable batteries will help our partners reduce cost and waste, making Talking Book programs more sustainable. Also, we needed to change technology, because the MPU (microprocessor chip) used in the old device has been obsolete for many years, and the global inventory is dwindling. 

Tell us about the design process.  

Because time passes and components become obsolete, we have to do an entirely new design. This means we’ve run into issues with things like the clock speeds and startup sequences of codecs, storage, and other peripherals. Also, within the constraints of not changing the mechanical design, we’re adding a more powerful amplifier. We hope to get more volume, which isn’t so easy to do with a one-inch speaker!

A high-level block diagram of the new Talking Book prototype.

Sounds like quite a challenge!

Yes, and that isn’t the only challenge. Amplio is a small organization and the Talking Book is intended for people living in extreme poverty. This means we don’t have a big design budget, so it’s a challenge to come up with a low-cost, low-power, flexible design without spending thousands of dollars of engineering time. We need to build an easy-to-use, innovative device that’s cheap to manufacture. Keeping the price down helps our partners reach more people.

Why are you switching to the Cortex-M4?

The Cortex-M4 will enable features that were out of reach before. The True Random Number Generator (TRNG) and computing power will let us improve data security. Specifically, we can provide state-of-the-art encryption of user feedback. Previously, Talking Book messages were mostly about farming and livestock. Now our partners are using the device to address sensitive topics like gender equality and land rights, so there’s a need for us to be able to collect information and keep it private. 

For example, the World Bank sees the potential of using the Talking Book for grievance redress. We want community members to feel safe about recording their questions and feedback in response to any topic, whether it’s about a health issue, civil rights, or corruption in their communities.

How is Amplio partnering with Arm and VSO?

Arm has sponsored Talking Book programs and product development since 2012, and we’ve built up quite a rapport. They introduced us to Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), a wonderful organization that works with volunteers to achieve social impact. This has led to an innovative partnership that aims to educate youth in Zambia about sexual and reproductive health and rights. Serendipitously, the project is called TALK!

We’re delighted that five Arm employees will provide technical support for the project. They’ll field test the Talking Book prototype in an environmentally challenging climate, with heat and wind, to really put it through its paces. As tech-savvy employees, they have the skills and insights to observe failures in the technology and see how it impacts end users. They will be able to notice subtleties in the device about what’s working and what’s not, which will be extremely valuable. I wish I could go with them; it will be a wonderful learning opportunity.

How do you think the Talking Book will go over with teens in Zambia?

Like teenagers everywhere, I think they’ll quickly figure out how to get the device to do anything it can do. If we add some pop songs, they’ll love it! Like radio, Talking Book content is produced in the form of songs, dramas, and interviews. The difference is that the content is on-demand and the device is interactive. I'm confident that VSO will be able to deliver information that teens need in a format they enjoy.

To learn more about our partnership to reach rural Zambian communities with essential sexual and reproductive health information, visit VSO Zambia’s website.


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