Science Interviews


Sun, 19th Feb 2012

Launching Raspberry Pi

David Braben, Raspberry Pi

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Chris -  Raspberry Pi is the size of a credit card.  It will sell for about 20 quid and it would turn your TV into a home computer, and the first units are set to arrive in Britain this week.  With us is the co-inventor David Braben from Frontier Developments in Cambridge.

David -   Hello.

Chris -   So tell us.  What was your vision for this when you first thought about creating this incredible miniature computer?

David -   What were trying to do is to bring computers to a lot of people who currently have access to computers maybe at school but don't have access to programming them in the same way.  In an awful lot of computers these days, its very hard to actually get at them as a device for programming.  They are very much more devices for consuming software.  One of the problems is that a lot of kids at school are put off using computers because ICT is very much how to use office skills and that sort of thing.  So they presume that's what programming is all about; which it isn't, programme is exciting, its fun!  You can do science, you can create things, its really good.  But at the moment, with computers, its very, very easy to muck them up and by that, I mean to stop them working because youve brought in a virus, that sort of thing.  The point about Raspberry Pi is essentially, we think its one of the first stateless computers for a very long time, in fact, since the days of things like the BBC micro, nearly 30 years. The point with that, apart from the Mac Address, when you first switch it on, they're all just the same. If you remove the SD card, there's no state in it.

Raspberry Pi alpha boardChris -   How does this actually work?  How have you managed to get this so small?

David -   One of the great things with the electronics industry over the last few decades is that electronics have been shrunk and shrunk, and shrunk, using less and less power, particularly for the mobile phone business.  So weve really piggy backed off that.  The chip that's at the centre of Raspberry Pi is a chip made by a company called Broadcom here in Cambridge, or designed here anyway, which has an ARM chip in it, also from Cambridge, that is small, low-powered, and also, not very expensive.

Chris -   And when someone buys one of these things, and 20 pounds sounds like an incredible price point for what youll be able to do, they'll plug this into their television.  How do they then interface with it, keyboards, mouse, and so on?  How does that work?

David -   Yes, you can plug in.  Its got USB sockets in it so you can plug in a keyboard, you can plug in a mouse and there you go, you've actually got a full computer.  You can do email and things like that, whatever you would do on a normal PC, but you can power cycle it very, very quickly.  Weve taken a slightly different philosophy where, yes, bad software might come in, you might do something wrong, you might mess it up temporarily but you press reset and less than 10 seconds later, you're back up again running with a fresh version of the machine.

Chris -   You were brought up the BBC Micro computer and that's where you made a huge name for yourself with a game.  I know there are people in this room well including me who will have played Elite which you pioneered, and were still totally amazed that you managed to do with 32K, what you did in that game.  It took people a long time to catch up.  What language will this run?  The BBC computer was so amazing at its time because BASIC, the language it ran was so accessible.  It was so easy to learn and it got you into it.  What will you do with this?

David -   Well actually, two of us wrote Elite, the original, back in 84.  What we do with this is we want the first versions, that ones that are going out this week, to be developer versions so were providing lots of different ways of using it.  What we plan is that later therell be a version that will be a lot more kid friendly.  There are several approaches, and what we want to do in the meantime is work out which is best.  And one of them interestingly is actually BASIC, the original BBC BASIC, because to be honest, learning is what's important and actually, its a really good system to learn with.

Chris -   So you'll be able to get it to run BBC BASIC.  This should get legions of kids programming.  Is this who you're aiming this at and were going to try and get school kids countrywide just Britain or worldwide to plug in on this because its so cheap and its something they can play without really messing it up.

David -   Our initial aim was just Britain but I think worldwide is very hopeful.  Weve been approached by charities and all sorts of other people.  The aim isn't just programming.  Its doing creative things with a computer and really to break down the barrier, using the computer as a tool which is something we saw a little bit of excitement for in the 1980s, but that's sort of gone away.  They're seen as really dull things and what's amazing is if you talk about it to a kid, you say would you like to make an app? then they go, that's what you mean!  That's sounds a lot more interesting.  I think that's the distinction.

Chris -   The first units arrive tomorrow in Britain, we hope.  What will you do with them?  How will you scale the project up to then optimise it and then start marketing it?

David -   Were hoping, assuming they all work fine, to be actually sending them out this week.  We have a plan for increasing the scale of what were delivering over the next few weeks and months.  We think its very, very exciting. We have a good feel that the demand is high.  We don't actually know how high it so its actually very exciting on that side as well.

Chris -   I know you said its a foundation but is it actually a business as well.  Is there an aim to try to make money so that you can re-invest that in the development of this thing or make a profit?  What's the model?

David -   We are a charity, but that doesnt mean we can't make a little bit of money on each unit.  Its a very small amount and we will be ploughing that back in to make the thing better, to produce what we can, and also to support it because the other part of this is to support an online resource so that children, teachers, parents can upload things and download things to make it become a of self-supporting community which I think could be really exciting.


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I can imagine an initial flurry of sales.  But, in the end, I don't expect it to endure for long.  It is just far too limited, and many people will run into its severe limitations.

$35 isn't bad, but there are so many computers now available, that one might as well do the programming in a real PC.  If one desires, one could buy a 5+ yr old PC, run linux on it.  Download high quality C++ or Java development systems.  And, perhaps be out $100 for a complete system.

The market it is competing in is the "Basic Stamp" market.  The nice advantage of the Raspberry is that it is very self-contained, whereas the Basic Stamp requires additional modules, and perhaps even a computer to program it.

But, for the Raspberry to survive, they will have to start coming up with add-ons.

Onboard Video
A few GAMES 
Wired and Wireless keyboards
GPIO I think is "General Purpose Input/Output"...  so it needs some cool stuff to attach to the GPIO.
Also, if it is being connected to the TV, make sure things like streaming video will work.

ONE USB Port?  I think I would have put on a half a dozen.  Keyboard, Mouse, Printer, IO, etc.

HDMI is good.  1080P is good.  But, I would make sure it is capable of standard computer resolutions, especially since most modern computer monitors (those that support HDMI) are pretty picky about resolutions.

In theory, many LINUX embedded devices are programmable.  So, for example, one can reprogram one's linksys router if one wants.  The advantage of the Raspberry is a bit better general purpose IO. CliffordK, Tue, 21st Feb 2012

Honestly, i can see this being popular and useful for a while. It could be used for a super cheap XMBC media centre connected to your TV. It could be used for robotics. Cheap in home servers(with the UK and US governments becoming spy happy, an in home server seems more and more attractive). You could also use these for in home automation. Were these things going for around 100 USD like your average plug computer with similiar specs, i would totally agree, but at $35 dollars, that is about as much as a pub steak meal in Australia. The cost barrier is so low, purchasing one doesn't really take a second thought. Liam, Mon, 2nd Apr 2012

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