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Back to the circuit board - a closer look at Raspberry Pi

25.07.13 / Scott Temple raspberry pi thermal image

The Raspberry Pi, a box fresh, build-your-own computer is a concept that challenges the notion of a traditional PC.  In just a couple of years, this £35 machine has captured the minds of developers worldwide, stimulating the creative streak in tech fanatics of all ages. It seems there is no limit to the uses inspired techies are finding for their Pis.

Founded in 2008, The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a charity supported by the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory and Broadcom. In 2011, it developed a single-board computer intended to provide an ideal environment for experimenting with programming and electronics. The initial objective was to further the advancement of education for adults and children, particularly in computer science and related subjects.

DQ Magazine decided to investigate Raspberry Pi (RP), searching for wild projects and speaking to users about their experiences of this intriguing device.

On Board

Before approaching what the RP can do, here’s the hardware. A Broadcom BCM2835 system on a chip that comes in two different varieties: Model A ($25) and Model B ($35), the main difference being USB ports (Model B has two and also comes with Ethernet).

Chris, a Graphic Designer in Jersey praises Raspberry Pi. “They’ve finally made computers approachable and hackable for a mainstream consumer market.” He points out that in the 70's, tech fanatics could hack early computers as they were made from very basic or readily available parts. However mass production of the 80s saw computers become less easy to hack or build and this scared off a lot of everyday users.

Technical Director at Jersey-based creative agency, The Observatory, Robbie, also sees the retro feel of the Pi as a positive. “For the general consumer, some knowledge of programming is necessary and one of the plus points is that users learn about programming again with that sense of nostalgia.” He adds, “People can risk different distributions, hack about – it doesn’t matter if they try things.”

Raspberry Pi’s bare nature and absence of fundamental features means it isn’t for everyone. No power cable, no case, no ‘off’ button. To turn the device off you simply unplug the micro USB cable.

Already Raspberry Pi is something of an enigma, it is designed to make computing more accessible yet, as PC Mag said, “Even adventurous types, who are the likely target audience, will need to approach cautiously and be aware of the challenges it presents, particularly at the very beginning.”

Board at school

Interactive, durable and inexpensive, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has succeeded in its initial objective to stimulate teaching of basic computer science. Raspberry Pi has two benefits for schools; firstly, its magic dollar price tag and secondly, giving the understanding and ability to see Raspberry Pi materialise from the circuit board up.

Whilst passing a Raspberry Pi around the classroom, teachers can easily point out where everything is and how each component functions. With its vigorous online community, including an official forum and regular social media updates, students get an all-round experience when learning with Raspberry Pi.

Rob Dudley, an open source software developer, told us about his personal projects and involvement in an educational scheme in Jersey, which aims to increase the teaching of computer science in island schools and has been embraced by 60 teachers who volunteered to attend software development seminars in order to improve their own skills.

Interestingly, there are two camps of thought on the nature of Raspberry Pi as an educational tool.

One is extremely pro-Pi believing it to be revolutionising computer science education, flying the flag for this camp is the organization, Computing at School (CAS). Their website posits: ‘a serious concern that many students are being turned off computing by a combination of factors that have conspired to make the subject seem dull and pedestrian. Our goal is to put the excitement back into Computing at school’.

Others however, feel that schoolchildren can just as easily learn basic computer science from the circuit board of a regular PC and that Raspberry Pi is just a clever and inexpensive device with a great marketing team behind it.

As well as being involved with the educational scheme, Rob has succeeded in creating a number of projects and has even set up Damn Fine Raspberry Pi, a Raspberry Pi themed blog from the device (since this interview, DQ has learned that due to the popularity of the blog, it has sadly outgrown RP and is now hosted by more powerful technology!).

Rob’s other projects include a countdown clock linked to an LCD display, a Wi-Fi booster, a GPS logger and reporter to track down the bus as well as a home surveillance system to monitor the postman. Rob points out that each project used pre-purchased hardware and total part spend for each project was around twenty pounds.

Pi-Powers

Jack, a web developer at E-scape, a Jersey-based digital agency, integrated Raspberry Pi and his TV to create a media centre to rival that of AppleTV or Xbox.

Across the world, people are putting their Pis to all sorts of tasks. A team of engineering undergraduates from Singapore used the Pi to build a DIY autonomous underwater vehicle, a robotic vessel dubbed Coconut Pi. From underwater to above the clouds, one Pi hacker sent his 40 Km into the sky taking live video as it rose through the atmosphere.

Perhaps the best thing about Pi is that there is no right nor wrong way to explore its abilities, everything depends on your interests.

Whatever your tech knowledge, Raspberry Pi is a serious tool for both experimentation and creativity. As the educational manual for Raspberry Pi puts it: ‘It's a blank vessel ready to contain any ideas you can devise.’

Crucially, what must accompany the purchase of a Raspberry Pi for any non-guru is a dedication to learning and improvement. You’ll be required to apply your analytical mind to master the minimal Linux necessary to take advantage of all the functions.

What you make is limited only by your imagination; the Raspberry Pi provides a platform for the small-scale system or that project you’ve wanted to get around to.

It is for programming, hacking, experimenting and creating, but above all it is for having fun.

 

A bit more reading:

What are people doing with their Raspberry Pi?

Eight projects created by kids 

Turn your Raspberry Pi into a remote Spotify server