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Getting Everybody a Piece of the Pi

Getting Everybody a Piece of the Pi

Mon 28 May 2012 7:00am GMT / 3:00am EDT / 12:00am PDT
HardwareDevelopment

David Braben on meeting demand for the innovative device, and where it goes from here

Thirty or so years ago, a new consumer electronics device pulled back the curtain on the mystery of computer programming in Great Britain, introducing coding to a generation of children who went on to run some of the next few decades' most impactful and profitable companies.

That device, the BBC Micro, is now enjoying much a deserved retirement from the front lines, but its legacy lives on. With the need for a new generation of code-literate young graduates threatening to derail not only the UK's games industry but any business in need of software engineers, several alumni from the school of BASIC decided it was time for a new, affordable introduction to coding.

So the Raspberry Pi was born. Now, with the UK government promising to shake things up in the curriculum, and waiting lists packed since the device's launch, it's time to shine.

Here, Raspberry Pi Foundation member and head of Frontier Developments David Braben talks about why the project is so important, and where it's heading next.

Q: So, the take up for Rasberry Pi so far has been fantastic, how's production holding up?

1

Education remains the Pi's main aim, although none are in schools just yet.

David Braben: The numbers have been fantastic - they've gone through the ceiling. Just before Christmas we had made a batch, funded from our own pockets, of just 10,000. We saw this tidal wave coming towards us, so we've been talking to the great guys at Premier Farnell and RS Electronics, who do distribution for us, and they've been great at getting things off the ground quickly, and they're making vastly more numberwise.

Q: Will that scale up?

David Braben: Well it's already scaled up, in that sense. What I think will happen, when we move towards an educational consumer device, which we haven't yet got a date for, but we're hoping will be the back end of this year, we'll have a case and friendly software - we'll scale up again then.

Q: So the models that are out there now, they're not really designed for school use are they - they're not really child-proof.

David Braben: That's right. What we will do, for people who already have them, we'll make sure we roll out software to them. But yes, the fact that it doesn't have a case means it's not really child friendly, but it does have a certain beauty.

Q: Indeed, in fact I can see how that might appeal to part of your audience even more - being able to see the workings in that way.

The nice thing about the machine being stateless is that everything is on the SD card, you don't need to update the machine.

David Braben: It does, and we'll continue to offer that caseless version.

Q: How do you plan to roll out software updates? Will it be online?

David Braben: Well the software updates are really easy already. The only problem at the moment is that you need some way of getting the image on to an SD card. One of the things we're trying to work away from is requiring a PC. The thing is, if you're a school, you can just put the image on a load of SD cards and Bob's your uncle, the machine is updated.

The nice thing about the machine being stateless is that everything is on the SD card, you don't need to update the machine.

Q: Once you're ready to roll out to schools, do you see the cost factor as being the greatest attraction and advantage?

David Braben: No - I think it's part of it, but I don't think it's the only key thing. When we were looking at this we were thinking, how do we get kids to learn and be creative with technology? Ironically, one of the things which we thought about was that buying a BBC Micro from Ebay was still the best learning computer. If you do something wrong you can press the Break button and you're back to square one in a few seconds.

In classrooms, that's very important, especially going from one lesson to the next. With the BBC Micro, using what was then called ethernet, a teacher could deploy, very quickly to all the machines in a classroom, a piece of software. The machines are all then in a known state, so if a kid does something wrong, you can just redeploy it.

2

Plenty of open source, 3D printed templates are already available for Raspberry Pi cases.

That philosophy is very important in education, but it's sort of anathema to the PC, because it's not a million miles from a computer virus: a machine remotely deploying software to all of your machines! It can be done, but the complexity of setting that up is harder and it doesn't really give the same freedom to the kids. What we're trying to do is build a fundamental comfort and confidence with the technology.

I think there's a surprising amount of technophobia amongst kids - I know a lot of people will see that comment and say, 'no, that's not true' because they're constantly playing with apps on an iPad or a mobile device or an Xbox, but when it comes to changing any settings, they're actually very wary. Especially on a PC, which we've all learned is actually quite a fragile device once you start editing batch files.

In many ways, the Raspberry Pi as you see it now comes across as quite a frightening machine, because you see this Linux boot sequence. But that happens on mobile phones too, it's just hidden from you.

Q: Are there any plans to build a more familiar GUI for it?

David Braben: Well it fires up into a Linux desktop anyway, which isn't a million miles away from what people are used to. But the intention here isn't to replace the PC, that's never been our intention, it's to provide something new which allows you to play around and learn.

If you think of content creation as a stairway, we already have the first step, because a lot of games support user generated content already. The amount of take up on that sort of thing is already huge.

The trouble is that the next four or five steps on the staircase are missing. They used to be provided in school, with that structured learning, or a knowledgeable parent helping a child past that stage.

Then the sixth or seventh step would be provided by something like XNA, there are a lot of learning tools, things like Arduino, where you'll really need a helpful adult to get you there, but once you're there you can pull yourself up on to the sixth or seventh step and then you can start downloading compilers and buying more complex tools - then you're self-sufficient, then you can program.

It's getting past those stages that's difficult. For me, personally it was things like BBC BASIC that worked, so we hope to offer BBC BASIC on Raspberry Pi. The point is, that you need something like that. It's showing you the familiarity, showing you what happens under the bonnet in a very simplistic way.

We, well, other members of the foundation, took a class live on BBC for half an hour where we wrote the game Snake in Python. It was great, the kids really engaged with it, they were really enthusiastic about adding a second snake or changing the colours. I think that's the thing: getting that enthusiasm to create things from scratch, the understanding that these things aren't actually rocket science, they aren't that terrifying.

Hopefully, down the line, we'll get a new generation of interested children. At the minute we've got a gap.

Hopefully, down the line, we'll get a new generation of interested children. At the minute we've got a gap. Since 2000 people haven't been signing up for computer science courses. I'm sure it's affected the other stem subjects as well. That is a real problem for the country.

There was a lot of damage done to the education system by the introduction of ICT. What we're trying to do is to provide, almost, the antidote. Now unfortunately that gap of ten years or so will remain, but at least we can start increasing numbers again so that there will be people coming through, in ten years or so, who do have an understanding of technology.

Q: With that skill gap in place, are you confident that UK teaching staff have enough knowledge to teach kids how to code? Do the teachers need to be re-educated as well?

David Braben: Well, our objective isn't necessarily to get the Raspberry Pi into schools, we're providing it as a tool to make things more practical. What we really want is to see the return of proper computer science teaching. A lot of people have been great for this, not just the Raspberry Pi foundation. The British Computing Society and a lot of other people have worked really hard for that and we've now got agreement from Michael Gove that the curriculum is going to change in September - that's really good.

So the way we see it is that we're supporting that. We've already got teachers from 1100 schools around the country signed up to actually teach computer science. I realise that's a small percentage of the total, which I think is around 5000 schools, but it's a very good start. What we're trying to do is put in place courses which will upgrade the skills of existing teachers. The government in September is still mandating the teaching of either computer science or ICT so that the teachers can continue. The real horror would be to see teachers laid off - that's not happening.

3

Both HDMI and analogue outputs ensure the Pi's flexibility.

There'll be the opportunity to upgrade their training so that they can actually teach computer science, and I think they're really up for that - actually most of them could already do it. The more we can get signed up for that, the better.

As in all things, to expect it to change overnight is unrealistic. But we can expect it to start to change. That's realistic. That's what we're doing.

Q: The UK is obviously the main focus, currently, but something that has been proposed is to provide Raspberry Pi units to less fortunate areas of the world. Has there been any progress with that?

David Braben: Yes. One of the reasons we put an old fashioned style analogue TV connector was that a number of charities got in touch with us and said, this would be great for us. From a practical point of view, laptops don't survive very well in unfriendly climates, where it's damp or sandy or dusty. Also, you put things in the back of a Landrover at the start of a journey and at the end you get a bag of bits. At least with one of these you can put it in your top pocket. Even if you reverse a Landrover over it, you've only lost yourself a relatively small amount of money.

David Braben will be talking about Raspberry Pi at Develop in Brighton, which takes place July 10-13, 2012. Book before June 13 for Early Bird discount rates.

15 Comments

Bruce Everiss
Marketing Consultant

1,692 594 0.4
Reminds me of the Science of Cambridge MK14, which begat the ZX series of home computers.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MK14

Posted:2 years ago

#1

Sam Brown
Programmer

235 164 0.7
"Are there any plans to build a more familiar GUI for it?" - *splutter* What?! Have you completely missed the point of removing people's reliance on Windows and other desktops and actually learning to program instead of run Office or type "Make game plz" into Unity? ^_^

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Sam Brown on 28th May 2012 10:32am

Posted:2 years ago

#2
Great, can we have ELite Pi next pls

Posted:2 years ago

#3

Robert
Programmers

10 0 0.0
Quite possibly the most fantastic advance in IT in the last 5 years.

This is indeed what the whole world needs and is the antithesis of point and do dumbing down.

Posted:2 years ago

#4

Sam Brown
Programmer

235 164 0.7
Although if we're talking about dumbing down, I was quite disappointed to find that GDB wasn't installed by default on the OS image. :)

Posted:2 years ago

#5

Barry Scott
Software Design

19 2 0.1
Sam: Python is the lead language. GDB is not required for that. And its only
a yum install away.

Posted:2 years ago

#6

Thomas Dolby
Project Manager / Lead Programmer

331 279 0.8
Got my Pi last week, it's a brilliant little device. It will only succeed in its goal with a lot of effort being focused on the education sector though, give this to a typical teen as it is, and it'll probably gather dust quickly. It may be popular with the programmers and enthusiasts already out there, but that was always a given. There still needs to be a spark to light up this movement.

Posted:2 years ago

#7

Nick Ferguson
Senior Producer

49 11 0.2
Just had a quick bash on a colleague's Pi...

All very admirable, but in the current state there is no way it is going to catch on beyond a dedicated hardcore following. The thought of it in schools is... well, I've done some school visits as a STEM Ambassador and I don't see myself taking a Pi with me.

A quick jaunt on the official forums was also interesting - a large number of people being mocked for not understanding how to compile the kernel and being told "Hey, it's a developer preview... it's NOT FOR YOU (yet)" in a fairly hostile manner.

Yeah, well, guess what guys: with the amount of hype and hoopla and (very) generous coverage you are getting, you'd better whip the Pi into shape if you want anyone other than neck-bearded sys admins to use it.

In a lot of ways it reminds me of Sony's Net Yaroze experiment, where a large number of people bought one in an initial wave of enthusiasm and then realised it required a great deal of technical knowledge to do anything useful with it.

I still have mine on order and I'm looking forward to mucking about with it, but I don't see this catching on with the mainstream population.

Posted:2 years ago

#8

Sam Brown
Programmer

235 164 0.7
@Nick: Absolutely, the people mocking others for not knowing fairly technical stuff (and for anyone not used to Linux even compiling a new addon library can be fairly daunting) are completely missing the point of the Pi. It's meant to help people get to know how to do the techy stuff, not to be another boy's club. I avoid the Pi forums because all the l33t attitude going on there just depresses me.

That's why, as Barry said, the lead language is Python - A simple cross-platform language that can be more complex if you want it to be. When I said wishing for a "more familiar GUI" was missing the point, I meant that I felt that using a GUI was counter to the PI's mission. Programming should be learnt on the command line so there are no distractions and very few bad habits to acquire.

That said, while learning an IDE in a WIMP environment is far too high-level, learning bare metal coding from scratch is far too low. Command line Python is perfect for interested kids IMHO and that's what the PI's primary reason for existence is.

It's secondary reason is to be powerful and interesting enough to for the kids to go further with when they're ready. When I was a kid we learnt BASIC on our Speccy or C64, threw a few coloured blocks around the screen, and then started digging into the processor - with, crucially, the help of others. With the Pi there's an XWindows install on there so they can do graphics, and if they want to go lower they can start on simple ASM.

My comment about GDB being initially absent was half-joking, although I would say that learning to debug is also a necessary programming talent. But it's not needed straight away. :)

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Sam Brown on 28th May 2012 5:03pm

Posted:2 years ago

#9

James Persaud
Game Programmer

9 4 0.4
I stopped reading this article when I got to "BBC micro" which anyone who was actually alive in the 80s in the UK will know was not remotely as influential as the Speccy was for bedroom programmers. I can safely assume that the rest of this article has been copied and pasted from the BBC's website too :)

Posted:2 years ago

#10
My primary school had about 4 bbc micros and they were very rarely used. The only one that seemed to get any use out of it was usually to play Elite (sorry David, I'm not trying to make you feel old)

Posted:2 years ago

#11

James Verity

132 25 0.2
A quick jaunt on the official forums was also interesting - a large number of people being mocked for not understanding how to compile the kernel and being told "Hey, it's a developer preview... it's NOT FOR YOU (yet)" in a fairly hostile manner.
I also thought the forum was very hostile... and warned others about the attitude on there... its not a very good advertisement for the product not to have proper mods to control some of the attitudes on the forums...

still awaiting my Pi to be delivered (June or July I think), they really should sort out some cases for the device, if they want to keep the barebones effect, make a clear case for it...

as for BBC basic... just add Spectrum, (or C64 and Amstrad) Basic instead...

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Verity on 28th May 2012 8:47pm

Posted:2 years ago

#12

Ken Varley
Owner & Freelance Developer, Writer

40 30 0.8
With the BBC Micro, using what was then called ethernet, a teacher could deploy, very quickly to all the machines in a classroom, a piece of software.
I'm pretty sure that the Acorn Network was called Econet and not Ethernet.

Posted:2 years ago

#13

John Bye
Senior Game Designer

480 451 0.9
Maybe I was just lucky, but my primary school had a BBC Micro and my middle school had a computer lab with about a dozen of the things, which we were taught to do some basic (in both senses of the word) programming and word processing on.

My family had one at home too, which certainly was lucky. I spent more time playing games on it than anything else, but back then magazines didn't have cover discs, they had several pages of code printed in them, which you had to type into your computer by hand .. and then debug, because there was inevitably at least one typo in the listing, plus any typing errors you'd made yourself.

And you tell that to the kids today...

Edited 2 times. Last edit by John Bye on 29th May 2012 11:11am

Posted:2 years ago

#14

Andrew Ihegbu
Studying Bsc Commercial Music

440 146 0.3
Indeed, but despite it being behind my time, I believe the British government had this ongoing deal to make Acorn (and later RM) their premier supplier, combine that with a BBC branded teaching tool and I'm sure despite whatever the bedroom coder used, he would have no choice but to use a Micro at school, or not code at all.

Posted:2 years ago

#15

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