David Braben came to this year’s Develop Conference to discuss Raspberry Pi, a $25 Linux-based computer that he (along with the rest of the Raspberry Pi Foundation) hopes will help re-engage school children with computer science. We caught up with him to discuss its current status.
What’s the problem that Raspberry PI is addressing?
Around 2004, we noticed the number of graduates of a certain standard dropping dramatically. I talked to a number of heads of computer science departments at university and they said, “Privately, our numbers have dropped terribly. They dropped a few years ago, and we’re just seeing them come out the other end.” Nobody wanted me to talk about that, though. I managed to get the statistics on the number of computer science applicants, and it had dropped precipitously – by fifty percent, to put it in perspective. By a factor of two. No-one seems to have looked into why. That is what horrified me.
Now, in another life, we make games for broad audiences. At that time, we were making RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, and we’d made Wallace And Gromit. We were doing lots of testing with kids, so it was a fantastic opportunity to anecdotally ask them about this. One of the questions I asked the kids was, “What is your most boring subject at school?” Previously, it was a mix: kids would say, maths, history, geography, English, even PE sometimes. But it was a big spread, and I think that’s healthy. Each subject was equally dull. Whereas after about 2004-2005, they would unanimously say ICT. ICT stands for Information and Communication Technology. It’s a subject at school that was brought into the national curriculum in the late 1990s.
It was done for the best reasons and the best intentions. The idea was to teach the ability to use a computer to kids: the ability to write letters, do PowerPoint, Excel. It was basically to teach office skills. The problem with that is that it completely replaced computer science. Prior to that, there was computer science being taught in schools. Since roughly the end of the 1990s, I think a lot of our computer education has been oriented around being good consumers, and not good creators. One of the things that got me into computers was the ability to make great things. It’s essentially electronic Lego.
We’re going to see a skills gap emerging, though. And this is only a problem for the UK, it’s not a worldwide problem as far as I can gather, which is why I think, anecdotally, that ICT is the cause. Kids think computer science is dull. We did engage with the previous administration about this, and they were very complacent. They thought that ICT was teaching computer science. It most definitely isn’t. I would advocate that we could teach computer science at the same time. The problem with ICT is that it’s generally taught by non-technically literate teachers, and that’s so off-putting to a kid who is driven.
For Raspberry Pi's expected $25 price, you'll get HDMI and USB ports, a 700MHz ARM11 CPU and 128MB or 256MB of memory. In other words, it'll be a reasonably capable machine – and it's little larger than a USB drive.
Are you approaching this problem on the legislation side too?
Yes. Personally, I think ICT should be renamed ‘Basic Business Skills,’ because that’s what they are. I’m not trying to knock it. It’s a fine subject. I just want computer science back. I don’t expect every kid to do it, but I’d like enough motivated people to do it. What we have done, and it’s not just me, is we have engaged with the government. Ed Vaizey has been really good, as has Tom Watson, Don Foster. But in general, government hasn’t engaged. One of the shocking things is, there was a fantastic conference at the beginning of this year, Learning Without Frontiers, in London, and it was attended by Ed Vaizey – who, by the way, isn’t from the Department of Education – but wasn’t attended by Michael Gove or David Willetts. They really aren’t engaged in education – and it’s their business!
Where did the idea to make a low-cost computer come from?
A group of likeminded individuals set up a charity a few years ago, because we felt like we had had a wonderful opportunity with machines like the BBC Micro, the Commodore PET, the Apple II, Sinclair Spectrum, Acorn Atom – machines that were around in the late 1970s, early 1980s. These were machines where it was very easy to learn, without fear of failure. The problem is that when you switch on a computer, you need so many tools to programme it, and you need to know what you’re doing, and you need somebody to set it up for you: it’s not trivial. What makes it worse is that if some kid does something great, they can’t easily transfer it to anyone else, because they have to have a similar set-up. We wanted to create a unified platform – which could be a software platform, incidentally, but it’s easier and more sensible to create a hardware platform – where you could do that. Think of the BBC Micro. You press the reset button, and one second later, it’s back to a known state and you can type new stuff in. You can’t mess it up!
Where is the Raspberry Pi program at right now?
We’ve had the first round of prototypes. There’s going to be a second round soon. We hope to do a developer version of the machine this year, and a version of the machine next year which will be more for kids, with a different form factor.
Was Frontier’s experience in designing things for kids useful?
I suppose so. Kids already want to tinker with things. Kids of all ages. With RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, we have hundreds of thousands of people creating content and exchanging it on the forums and all that sort of thing. That just showed us. Look at creativity in LittleBigPlanet, Minecraft, Halo's Forge, Kodu. There’s a real appetite for this. But there’s a gap between that and stuff like XNA. This is to bridge the gap. Really, this is about providing tools that will make this process easier.
Here's part two of our interview, about Frontier's special relationship with theme park design as it works on Kinect Disneyland Adventures, the future of The Outsider and the studio's forays into mobile gaming with LostWinds.