Easy as Raspberry Pi

Easy as Raspberry Pi

Picture the scene. It's 1982 – a pre-school summer camp in rural East Anglia, England. The sun is going down, the toys are put away, and the kids have been reclaimed from local parks and sports grounds. Getting them back out into their parents' waiting cars, though, is proving a bit tricky. The problem, specifically, is a monitor sat between coat hooks and door, upon which a small turtle is doodling around a big black space, leaving little white pixels in its wake. This is Logo, an educational programming language born in the world of robotics. For the sake of this true story, we'll call it 'Chapter One'.

To cut to the chase, Chapter Two sees many of those same kids learn that just a few lines in BBC BASIC can spawn a screenful of 'MR COBB IS A NIMROD', and from there it takes just a few more to let the user choose both victim and pejorative. Chapter Three involves transplanting the game Hunchback from the pages of a magazine; Chapter Four is called, simply, 'Elite'. And Raspberry Pi? That's a whole new volume.

A single-board computer powered by a 700MHz ARM processor, equipped with USB support, HDMI output and hardware-accelerated 3D graphics, this fetchingly named device has a small profile (credit card size), an even smaller price ($25-$35 depending on RAM), and colossal ambitions. Fronted by David Braben, head of Frontier Developments and graduate of a now extinct computer science culture in schools, the Raspberry Pi Foundation wants nothing less than a revolution in how programming is seen and, even more crucially, taught.

Its size makes it tempting to call Raspberry Pi a device, but it's a computer, really. 'Device' suggests singular function and intent, and this is anything but. The obvious headline is that it can run Quake III Arena, "but I think it's fair to say it's quite a way beyond that in terms of what it can do," Braben points out. "It will be able to do things that you'd consider a lot more contemporary, but these are the things available freely that can we can show running easily."

David Braben

Besides, that's not the real crux of what pi is all about. yes, it runs on a Linux core and presently boots to the familiar 'X' desktop environment – LXDE, to be exact, which fits snugly into the cheaper model's 128MB (as opposed to 256MB) of RAM – which in time will be hardware-accelerated and silky smooth. and, yes, it is being looked at by the makers of open-source media champion XBMC, and can decode 1080p video through its Broadcom GPU. so, yes, it packs a lot of power for something smaller (and almost cheaper) than the average portable USB hub.

Thinking of it in those terms, though, risks slotting it into the profile of any old homebrew device. "That's not the point," Braben says. "There's a huge gap between [making UGC in] Halo Forge, Rollercoaster Tycoon or LittleBigPlanet, and the things at the top end like XNA where you've gotta know your bananas to get engaged in it. For me, the BBC Micro crossed that gap. Actually, the bottom bit didn't even exist back then, but it shows that there's a will to learn 'programming Lego'."

By being small and cheap enough to find its way into every schoolbag in this country and beyond, Raspberry Pi could potentially become a constructionist tool for all kinds of classroom scenarios. Kids can learn by making virtual objects, directed by a mix of syllabus and whimsy, and in the process demystify the code behind things they use on a daily basis. Games, gadgets, phones and other everyday machines: all are deceptively simple, Braben says, when you look beyond the UI.

Speaking of which, much about Raspberry Pi has yet to change on that front. The exceedingly limited-run version that was launched just after Christmas was a developer board, naked as the day it was soldered, and lacking in bespoke software. In time, though, it should boot to something a lot more familiar to times gone by.

Raspberry Pi
The small thumb-drive-sized unit on the right is the alpha version; the one on the left is the full thing

"We've got something that MIT did called Scratch [a 'programming language for everyone'], which we actually showed running on a recent Newsnight piece. That sort of thing… you look at it and go, 'Oh, I could do that.' a pC is very daunting and very, very easy to mess up, or at least there's the fear of that – that it'll never, ever boot again. and it's not entirely unfounded: you delete the wrong .dll and it's actually really hard to get your pC back if you don't know what your kid did. That's a really big problem in schools."

There is no permanent storage on Raspberry Pi, just a single SD Card slot that contains all it needs to boot and operate. Though Braben posits (with a grin like the Cheshire Cat) that you could run BBC BASIC solely from the CPU's primary cache with the speed of assembler, it's important that a 'bricked' unit can be restored just by swapping in a new SD Card. There's every intention, furthermore, to actually include BASIC, "though there may or may not be a problem with those magic three letters."

Hesitant to fall back on the trendy phrase 'crowd- sourcing', Braben nonetheless admits that community is key to building up Raspberry Pi's software library. With 50 units in the wild now, 10,000 ready to be bought from its Web site, and deals in place with "a very wide range of different people, from education to technology companies to well-meaning individuals who have great pieces of software," the hope is that the community runs with the board – with the idea behind the board – and takes it to that place resembling Braben's youth, where computers meant programs, and programs meant possibility.

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