Whatever happened to Kinkajou?

The Kinkajou Microfilm Projector is a teaching tool for nighttime adult literacy courses in rural communities without books or electric lighting.  It was DtM’s very first projected, started back when the company founders were still graduate students at MIT.  It’s been more than a decade since the Kinkajou pilot in rural Mali and what was once cutting edge appropriate technology is probably no longer the best tool for the job.  What was the Kinkajou project, and how did it teach us that context-appropriate design is a moving target?

The Kinkajou Microfilm Projector

One in five adults worldwide does not know how to read. In rural regions of West Africa, up to 75% of the population is illiterate. According to Barbara Garner of World Education, “It’s the lack of resources”—specifically access to books and lighting—rather than a lack of interest in education that contributes to illiteracy rates.

To solve this problem, DtM partnered with World Education, students from MIT and a team of professional volunteers to design the Kinkajou Microfilm Projector.  Kinkajou was a rugged, lightweight, low-power projection system, which used a microfilm cassette to store up to 10,000 images at a fraction of the cost of paper books. The system also employed what was then state-of-the-art LED lighting and low-cost plastic optics adapted from “View Master” toys to project an image large enough for the entire classroom to read. The design required no tools more complicated than pocket change for maintenance, and included a battery, charge controller and solar panel for off-grid use.


In 2004, with funding from USAID, World Education implemented Kinkajou Projectors in literacy centers in 45 Malian villages.  They were an immediate hit.

“It is better, because without [the Kinkajou], when the teacher is writing on the board, students wait in the dark in vain, and they do nothing. We lose much time and the quality of handwriting is not good.”  Martine Sogoba, Literacy Teacher (“Karamogo”), Digani, Mali

To date, over 10,000 adults have learned to read using these projectors. The results of an independent, two-year pedagogical impact study showed that performance in Kinkajou nighttime classes far exceeded that of non-Kinkajou nighttime classes, and even exceeded the performance of World Education’s daytime adult literacy classes. A site survey in 2015 found that many of the projectors were still in use.

DtM’s Kinkajou received worldwide attention and recognition, including the Tech Museum Award Laureate 2005, the INDEX: Award Top Nominee 2005, the Design News Award 2004, and the MIT IDEAS International Technology Award 2003.  Kinkajou exhibitions included the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum’s 2007 “Design for the Other 90%” and the Boston Museum of Science.

Where is Kinkajou Now?

Technology has come a long way since 2003.  We developed Kinkajou because at the time, you simply couldn’t buy a rugged, portable projector at any cost.  All projectors at the time used fragile incandescent bulbs that cost as much as $400 each, and required bulky optics that made transportation difficult and expensive.  This meant that our compact, LED-based lighting system and rugged plastic optics filled a niche for rural classrooms without electricity.  


If you dig deep enough in your box of old bike lights and hiking headlamps, you’ll discover the historical stratum where they all suddenly switched from incandescents, to compact halogen bulbs, to LEDs.  In 2003 Kinkajou was built around what was the most cutting edge compact light source: the Luxeon “star” five-watt white LED.  This component was so new and had found so few commercial applications we had to develop our own custom optics and thermal management system.  Now, high-intensity white LEDs are a dime a dozen (or far cheaper).

Kinkajou predated the launch of the One Laptop per Child project by three years.  In 2003, it was rare to find a rural African community with internet service or even a cellular signal.  There would be no way to deliver new content to a computer short of the “sneakernet”--physically transporting information on CDs (or floppy disks if you were a real freak).  We were surprised when our product requirements indicated that high-density and durable microfilm was the most cost-effective solution to delivering educational content to rural villages.  

Today, most communities have access to a cell signal and the cost of smartphone has plummeted.  In addition, a smartphone in a jelly case is a tough gadget, far more resistant to dust and bumps and cheaper to ship than a desktop computer or even a laptop.  It is now possible to buy a high-quality LED-based portable pico projector for under US$300 (examples).  You can pair these projectors with an inexpensive smartphone, tablet or Chromebook--all of which could be charged with an inexpensive solar panel.  

This new combination of a smartphone and a pico projector may not be a perfect solution to rural education, but it’s better than any solution that was available at the time we developed Kinkajou.


And this matters because…

The key lesson for us with Kinkajou is that today’s design requirements may become tomorrow’s bad assumptions.  Many products have a narrow moment in which they’re the best tool for the job.  It’s part of the designer’s job description to stay up to date on the latest technologies, from components to manufacturing processes.  As designers, we might take an inspiration from MIT professor Robert Langer's approach to medical innovation:

In the early 1990s, [Robert] Langer became interested in the fabrication techniques for microchips used in electronics. He thought these methods might also be used to make implantable devices that could release drugs. (He jokes that he saw a TV program about microelectronics and thought, as always, that anything new and interesting should have relevance for drug delivery.)  [Amanda Schaffer, "The Problem Solver," Technology Review, 21Apr15]

Consider the products you’re designing today.  How many of them are based on assumptions about current resources and technologies?  How might those technologies evolve over the projected lifespan of your project?  The next time you read about some new gadget, ask yourself: what does this say about the project we’re working on right now?  Does this create a new threat, or a new opportunity?