There are a number of really cheap, really small System-on-Chip (SoC) processor powered computer boards running Linux or Android coming on the market. These are dropping down to the $25 range (for a version of the Raspberry Pi) and while the models available today may not have all the performance desired for running PC applications on them, such as a web browser, it will only take a generation or two of Moores Law for them to have all the performance wanted and at this level of price point. These boards have connections to run displays, accept SD memory cards, support USB peripherals like Wifi dongles, cameras, mice and keyboards, and output audio.
What will the widespread availability of cheap, tiny, powerful, networked computers mean? Well, for one I think it’s very good news for robotics. So far, one of the cheaper ways to get a decent amount of processing and wireless connectivity onto a robot is to use a standard laptop or netbook and many robots have adopted this method. A more recent approach has been to leverage smart phones as the wirelessly connected brains of a robot. These are both great approaches but are still in the $300 plus category, which is too much for truly inexpensive and accessible robots, say for children and games. From now, and over the next few years, these new computer boards will make a fantastic processor brain for small inexpensive robots and will support common Linux and Android development tool chains.
Another idea for such computer boards is to use as a wireless computer plugged into your TV’s HDMI input jack. They can bring Internet content and natural user interface interactive controls such as voice, gesture and more to the TV without needing any set top box to take up shelf space.
They will also become cheap enough to embed into many appliances and home systems supporting Internet connectivity and bringing on the Internet of Things.
I think these are a good sign of what’s to come as general purpose computers become so small, cheap, low power and performant that they become ubiquitous and therefor fade in to the background of our lives. Eventually we will simply expect most of the objects we interact with to have computational elements and Internet connectivity.
Example small computer boards:
$25-$35 for Raspberry Pi A or B: http://www.raspberrypi.org
$49 for the forthcoming APC 8750: http://apc.io
<$100 for the forthcoming Valueplus Tizzbird N1: http://www.cnx-software.com/2012/03/08/valueplus-tizzbird-stick-n1-android-ics-hdmiusb-dongle-media-player
<$150 for the forthcoming and really interesting Rascal from Rascal Micro: http://rascalmicro.com