A 15 pound computer to inspire young programmers

Rory Cellan-Jones

May 5, 2011

It's not much bigger than your finger, it looks like a leftover from an electronics factory, but its makers believe their 15 computer could help a new generation discover programming.

The games developer David Braben and some colleagues came to the BBC this week to demonstrate something called Raspberry Pi [ http://www.raspberrypi.org/ ]. It's a whole computer on a tiny circuit board - not much more than an ARM processor, a USB port, and an HDMI connection. They plugged a keyboard into one end, and hooked the other into a TV they had brought with them.

The result, a working computer running on a Linux operating system for very little, and a device that will, like the kit computers of the 1970s and 80s, encourage users to tinker around under the bonnet and learn a bit of programming. And it's a yearning to return to those days that is driving Braben and the other enthusiasts who are working to turn this sketchy prototype into a product that could be handed to every child in Britain.

They believe that what today's schoolchildren learn in ICT classes leaves them uninspired and ignorant about the way computers work. David Braben says the way the subject is taught today reminds him of typing lessons when he was at school - useful perhaps in preparing pupils for office jobs, but no way to encourage creativity.

Raspberry Pi is a non-profit venture, whose founders are mostly part of Cambridge's thriving technology sector. Their hope is that teachers, developers and the government will come together to get the device into the hands of children who may not have access to a computer at home or would not be allowed by parents to "muck about with it".

In some ways, the project resembles the One Laptop Per Child [ http://one.laptop.org/about/mission ] (OLPC) scheme, which sought to create a laptop for children in the developing world at a cost of $100. OLPC was successful in promoting the idea of cheap computing, spawning lots of netbook imitators, but has struggled to get the price as low as they promised and to convince governments to back the idea.

There's a lot of work for Raspberry Pi to do. The volunteer team has to produce a better working prototype, has to show that it really can be manufactured for around 15, and then has to capture the imagination of the people in the educational establishment who will decide whether to give it the thumbs up.

So there is no guarantee that a new generation will discover that there's more to a computer than turning it on, updating your Facebook status, and making a Powerpoint presentation. But wouldn't it be great if an idea dreamed up by a group of Cambridge enthusiasts ended up inspiring young people here and perhaps across the world to engage with computers in a new way? I will keep you up to date here with how Raspberry Pi develops and my colleagues on the BBC's Click technology programme [ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/click_online/default.stm ] will also be taking a look at the project.

Copyright 2011