Introducing the BBC micro:bit

This year the BBC micro:bit computer will be given out free to every 11 year old in Britain, to encourage them to learn to code.
13 July 2015

Interview with 

Gary Atkinson and Tristan Hughes, ARM


BBC micro:bit


In October this year, every 11 year old in the UK will receive, via their school, a BBC micro:bitfree gadget called a micro:bit. It's been developed by a group of collaborating organisations, led by the BBC, including the Cambridge-based company ARM. ARM design about 99% of the world's microchips that you find in mobile devices, like smartphones. Gary Atkinson and Tristan Hughes work for ARM and they unveiled the new Micro:bit for Chris Smith...

Gary - The micro:bit is a very small pocket-size computer but it differs from the Raspberry Pi in that this is the sort of platform that you'd find in a smart watch or a wearable type device, you know an internet-of-things type device.

Chris - It's sort of roughly the same size if I snapped my credit card in half which I feel like doing it judging by the bill at the moment. It would be about that big.

Gary - Yeah. It's about the - I'm showing my age talking about matchboxes, but it's about the size of a matchbox. So, it's got an array of LEDs on the front. So you can have scrolling text, you can have little sprite type designs. It's got a couple of programmable buttons on the front. Similarly to the Raspberry Pi, one of the things that kids really are interested in is the fact that this is not covered in a box, that you can actually see the different chips and the pieces. And so, on the back of the micro:bit, we describe where the Bluetooth low energy antenna is and where the USB chip is, and where different pieces are so they can actually have a look and see what things are called.

Chris - This is a PCB, Printed Circuit Board and I can see all of the tiny little tracks which are the connections between the things. So, what could I do with it?

Gary -   As it stands by itself with a battery power supply, there is an accelerometer so it knows when it's being moved. It has a magnetometer on board so it knows what direction it's pointing in.

Chris - Like a compass.

Gary - Like a digital compass. You can create little games, you can scroll texts, you can use it as a controller. It has Bluetooth low energy built into it so you can connect it to your mobile phone. So, it can pull data from the phone like GPS for example if you wanted location based algorithm to run, or you could use it as a little hand-held controller for a game running on an android phone for example.

Chris - But critically, it doesn't have a keyboard or anything like that so how do you get your programmes or whatever you want to do with it into it in the first place?

Gary - You can either connect it via - there's a micro USB port so you can connect it to a PC. You can go to the micro:bit website and you can log in and you can choose your development environment from a simple GUI type platform like...

Chris - It's a Graphical User Interface for those not in the know of this text-speak Gary.

Gary - Graphical User Interface, so like scratch called blockly or you can use java script or python or C++, depending on your preference or your confidence level. And that's all browser based so you can do that on a PC or a laptop or a tablet, or a mobile phone. But the difference here is, once you may be doing that via USB, you could also, because it talks bluetooth to your tablet or your phone, you could actually programme it and we can flash this device over Bluetooth. So, over the air. So you could imagine kids on the bus sending messages to each other and in real time, changing that message and recoding the device.

Chris - Sounds perfect for a Naked Scientist, something you can flash. Let's come over to Tristan Hughes because you have got an intriguing setup here, Tristan. A giant watering can and beautiful looking orchid in a pot.

Tristan - Yes, we have. This is our automated plant watering system demonstration. So, it's a very basic demonstration using the Micro Bit. So you connect it up to a moisture sensor that's currently sat in the plant. So, that's telling us how moist the soil is around the plant. We've also connected up, inside the watering can, we've got a small pump and that's also connected to the Micro Bit. So, when the Micro Bit senses that the soil is getting a bit dry on the plant, we can use that to turn the pump on and water the plant.

Chris - Can we see it work so we actually know that this really is actually doing what it says on the tin?

Tristan - We can. So, if we remove the moisture sensor out of the soil for time being to pretend that it's gone really dry...

Chris - Wow! You can probably hear this at home. The watering can is issuing a big jet of water and it's filling the pot up. The moisture sensor is quite literally two bits of metal. So, you're just detecting the ability for electricity to pass between the two.

Tristan - Yes, we are. So, that just gives us an analogue voltage into the Micro Bit and then when we code the micro:bit, we can just say, is it higher than a certain voltage or lower? And that's how we're using it to determine that whether to turn the pump on and off.

Chris - So, if a child wanted to do that at home, how hard would it be?

Tristan - It's fairly simple. You just connect the moisture sensor up to the micro:bit using one of the inputs across the bottom and the code is very simple, using the tools that have been provided to enable this kind of application to be produced.

Chris - So, this goes back to what Eben was saying earlier. It's all about empowering kids to get hands on and do something. Let me ask you then Gary, why did you get into computing in the first place and then end up ultimately working for what is ostensibly one of the world's most important tech companies?

Gary - Well, similarly to Eben, I'm a child of the BBC micro. When I was at secondary school, we had one in the classroom. Some people took to it very naturally, some people didn't. I probably didn't actually, but we were all exposed to it and that's similarly the rationale for what we're doing with the micro:bit, we're giving this to everybody, state school, private school, home school, every year 11 child in October. We want it to be completely inclusive. It didn't matter - male or female, ethnicity, social background - you get one. The goal is, assuming that we can repeat this every year that we may be getting another 100,000 engineers who are interested either in STEM or RICT but just creatively using electronics to do something interesting.

Chris - Let's hope it works because as we said earlier, we need 1.4 million of them. So Tristan, apart from watering plants, what else have you got dreamed up for this thing that people could conceive of doing with it?

Tristan - So, we've also done a hoodie that has LED stitching around the hood. But it uses the Bluetooth low energy on the micro:bit. So, you have a smartphone app and you can set the colour of the LEDs on the hood using that. We're also thinking about different ways we can use the sensors on-board the Micro Bit so you can create something just using the Micro Bit alone without having to connect any external sensors to it.

Chris - Alarm for my bedroom perhaps?

Tristan - Definitely, yes. With maybe a methods so that it can text you so you know that when someone has entered your room.

Chris - Really? That could be quite cool. So, how would you do that?

Tristan - Again, you could use the Bluetooth low energy on the micro:bit to connect to your mobile phone and use that as a method of notifying you when something like that has happened.

Chris - Who was invading your bedroom. Well, we wish you luck with it. Thank you very much. So, the launch is in October across the country, but it's being unveiled this week, Gary.

Gary - Yeah. It was unveiled on Tuesday just gone in London. The teachers will be getting theirs in September and then all the kids should be getting theirs in October.


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