Author Archives: Matt Richardson

Physical computing blocks at Maker Faire New York

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At events like Maker Faire New York, we love offering visitors the chance to try out easy, inviting, and hands-on activities, so we teamed up with maker Ben Light to create interactive physical computing blocks.

Raspberry Blocks FINAL

In response to the need for hands-on, easy and inviting activities at events such as Maker Faire New York, we teamed up with maker Ben Light to create our interactive physical computing blocks.

Getting hands-on experience at events

At the Raspberry Pi Foundation, we often have the opportunity to engage with families and young people at events such as Maker Faires and STEAM festivals. When we set up a booth, it’s really important to us that we provide an educational, fun experience for everyone who visits us. But there are a few reasons why this can be a challenge.

Girls use the physical computing blocks at Maker Faire New York

For one, you have a broad audience of people with differing levels of experience with computers. Moreover, some people want to take the time to learn a lot, others just want to try something quick and move on. And on top of that, the environment is often loud, crowded, and chaotic…in a good way!

Creating our physical computing blocks

We were up against these challenges when we set out to create a new physical computing experience for our World Maker Faire New York booth. Our goal was to give people the opportunity to try a little bit of circuit making and a little bit of coding — and they should be able to get hands-on with the activity right away.

Inspired by Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio, we sketched out physical computing blocks which let visitors use the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO pins without needing to work with tiny components or needing to understand how a breadboard works. We turned the sketches over to our friend Ben Light in New York City, and he brought the project to life.

Father and infant child clip crocodile leads to the Raspberry Pi physical computing blocks at Maker Faire New York

As you can see, the activity turned out really well, so we hope to bring it to more events in the future. Thank you, Ben Light, for collaborating with us on it!

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Taking the first step on the journey

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This column is from The MagPi issue 58. You can download a PDF of the full issue for free, or subscribe to receive the print edition in your mailbox or the digital edition on your tablet. All proceeds from the print and digital editions help the Raspberry Pi Foundation achieve its charitable goals.

About five years ago was the first time I unboxed a Raspberry Pi. I hooked it up to our living room television and made space on the TV stand for an old USB keyboard and mouse. Watching the $35 computer boot up for the first time impressed me, and I had a feeling it was a big deal, but I’ll admit that I had no idea how much of a phenomenon Raspberry Pi would become. I had no idea how large the community would grow. I had no idea how much my life would be changed from that moment on. And it all started with a simple first step: booting it up.

Matt Richardson on Twitter

Finally a few minutes to experiment with @Raspberry_Pi! So far, I’m rather impressed!

The key to the success of Raspberry Pi as a computer – and, in turn, a community and a charitable foundation – is that there’s a low barrier to the first step you take with it. The low price is a big reason for that. Whether or not to try Raspberry Pi is not a difficult decision. Since it’s so affordable, you can just give it a go, and see how you get along.

The pressure is off

Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux operating system kernel, talked about this in a BBC News interview in 2012. He explained that a lot of people might take the first step with Raspberry Pi, but not everyone will carry on with it. But getting more people to take that first step of turning it on means there are more people who potentially will be impacted by the technology. Torvalds said:

I find things like Raspberry Pi to be an important thing: trying to make it possible for a wider group of people to tinker with computers. And making the computers cheap enough that you really can not only afford the hardware at a big scale, but perhaps more important, also afford failure.

In other words, if things don’t work out with you and your Raspberry Pi, it’s not a big deal, since it’s such an affordable computer.

In this together

Of course, we hope that more and more people who boot up a Raspberry Pi for the first time will decide to continue experimenting, creating, and learning with it. Thanks to improvements to the hardware, the Raspbian operating system, and free software packages, it’s constantly becoming easier to do many amazing things with this little computer. And our continually growing community means you’re not alone on this journey. These improvements and growth over the past few years hopefully encourage more people who boot up Raspberry Pis to keep exploring.
raspberry pi first step

The first step

However, the important thing is that people are given the opportunity to take that first step, especially young people. Young learners are at a critical age, and something like the Raspberry Pi can have an enormously positive impact on the rest of their lives. It’s a major reason why our free resources are aimed at young learners. It’s also why we train educators all over the world for free. And encouraging youngsters to take their first step with Raspberry Pi could not only make a positive difference in their lives, but also in society at large.

With the affordable computational power, excellent software, supportive community, and free resources, you’re given everything you need to make a big impact in the world when you boot up a Raspberry Pi for the first time. That moment could be step one of ten, or one of ten thousand, but it’s up to you to take that first step.

Now you!

Learning and making things with the Pi is incredibly easy, and we’ve created numerous resources and tutorials to help you along. First of all, check out our hardware guide to make sure you’re all set up. Next, you can try out Scratch and Python, our favourite programming languages. Feeling creative? Learn to code music with Sonic Pi, or make visual art with Processing. Ready to control the real world with your Pi? Create a reaction game, or an LED adornment for your clothing. Maybe you’d like to do some science with the help of our Sense HAT, or become a film maker with our camera?

You can do all this with the Raspberry Pi, and so much more. The possibilities are as limitless as your imagination. So where do you want to start?

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Product or Project?

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This column is from The MagPi issue 57. You can download a PDF of the full issue for free, or subscribe to receive the print edition in your mailbox or the digital edition on your tablet. All proceeds from the print and digital editions help the Raspberry Pi Foundation achieve its charitable goals.

Image of MagPi magazine and AIY Project Kit

Taking inspiration from a widely known inspirational phrase, I like to tell people, “make the thing you wish to see in the world.” In other words, you don’t have to wait for a company to create the exact product you want. You can be a maker as well as a consumer! Prototyping with hardware has become easier and more affordable, empowering people to make products that suit their needs perfectly. And the people making these things aren’t necessarily electrical engineers, computer scientists, or product designers. They’re not even necessarily adults. They’re often self-taught hobbyists who are empowered by maker-friendly technology.

It’s a subject I’ve been very interested in, and I have written about it before. Here’s what I’ve noticed: the flow between maker project and consumer product moves in both directions. In other words, consumer products can start off as maker projects. Just take a look at the story behind many of the crowdfunded products on sites such as Kickstarter. Conversely, consumer products can evolve into maker products as well. The cover story for the latest issue of The MagPi is a perfect example of that. Google has given you the resources you need to build your own dedicated Google Assistant device. How cool is that?

David Pride on Twitter

@Raspberry_Pi @TheMagP1 Oh this is going to be a ridiculous amount of fun. 😊 #AIYProjects #woodchuck https://t.co/2sWYmpi6T1

But consumer products becoming hackable hardware isn’t always an intentional move by the product’s maker. In the 2000s, TiVo set-top DVRs were a hot product and their most enthusiastic fans figured out how to hack the product to customise it to meet their needs without any kind of support from TiVo.

Embracing change

But since then, things have changed. For example, when Microsoft’s Kinect for the Xbox 360 was released in 2010, makers were immediately enticed by its capabilities. It not only acted as a camera, but it could also sense depth, a feature that would be useful for identifying the position of objects in a space. At first, there was no hacker support from Microsoft, so Adafruit Industries announced a $3,000 bounty to create open-source drivers so that anyone could access the features of Kinect for their own projects. Since then, Microsoft has embraced the use of Kinect for these purposes.

The Create 2 from iRobot

iRobot’s Create 2, a hackable version of the Roomba

Consumer product companies even make versions of their products that are specifically meant for hacking, making, and learning. Belkin’s WeMo home automation product line includes the WeMo Maker, a device that can act as a remote relay or sensor and hook into your home automation system. And iRobot offers Create 2, a hackable version of its Roomba floor-cleaning robot. While iRobot aimed the robot at STEM educators, you could use it for personal projects too. Electronic instrument maker Korg takes its maker-friendly approach to the next level by releasing the schematics for some of its analogue synthesiser products.

Why would a company want to do this? There are a few possible reasons. For one, it’s a way of encouraging consumers to create a community around a product. It could be a way for innovation with the product to continue, unchecked by the firm’s own limits on resources. For certain, it’s an awesome feel-good way for a company to empower their own users. Whatever the reason these products exist, it’s the digital maker who comes out ahead. They have more affordable tools, materials, and resources to create their own customised products and possibly learn a thing or two along the way.

With maker-friendly, hackable products, being a creator and a consumer aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, you’re probably getting the best of both worlds: great products and great opportunities to make the thing you wish to see in the world.

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Processing: making art with code

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This column is from The MagPi issue 56. You can download a PDF of the full issue for free, or subscribe to receive the print edition in your mailbox or the digital edition on your tablet. All proceeds from the print and digital editions help the Raspberry Pi Foundation achieve its charitable goals.

One way we achieve our mission at the Raspberry Pi Foundation is to find an intersection between someone’s passion and computing. For example, if you’re a young person interested in space, our Astro Pi programme is all about getting your code running on the International Space Station. If you like music, you can use Sonic Pi to compose songs with code. This month, I’d like to introduce you to some interesting work happening at the intersection between computing and the visual arts.

Image of Dead Presidents by Mike Brondbjerg art made with Processing

Mike Brondbjerg’s Dead Presidents uses Processing to generate portraits.

Processing is a programming language and development environment that sits perfectly at that intersection. It enables you to use code to generate still graphics, animations, or interactive applications such as games. It’s based on the Java programming language, and it runs on multiple platforms and operating systems. Thanks to the work of the Processing Foundation, and in particular the efforts of contributor Gottfried Haider, Processing runs like a champ on the Raspberry Pi.

Screenshot of Processing environment

When I want to communicate how cool Processing is while speaking to members of the Raspberry Pi community, I usually make this analogy: with Sonic Pi, you can use one line of code to make one note; with Processing, you can use one line of code to draw one stroke. Once you’ve figured that out, you can use computational tools such as loops, conditions, and variables to make some beautiful art.

And even though Processing is intended for use in the realm of visual arts, its capabilities can go beyond that. You can make applications that interact with the user through keyboard or mouse input. Processing also has libraries for working with network connections, files, and cameras. This means that you don’t just have to create artwork with Processing. You can also use it for almost anything you need to code.

Physical process

Processing is especially cool on the Raspberry Pi because there’s a library for working with the Pi’s GPIO pins. You can therefore have on-screen graphics interacting with buttons, switches, LEDs, relays, and sensors wired up to your Pi. With Processing, you could build a game that uses a custom controller that you’ve built yourself. Or you could create a piece of artwork that interacts with the user by sensing their proximity to it.

Processing screenshot

Best of all, Processing was created with learning to code in mind. It comes with lots of built-in examples, and you can use these to learn about many different programming and drawing concepts. The documentation on Processing’s website is very thorough and – as with Raspberry Pi – there’s a very supportive community around it if you run into any trouble. Additionally, the Processing development environment is powerful but also very simplified. For these reasons, it’s perfect for someone who is just getting started.

To get going with Processing on Raspberry Pi, there’s a one-line install command. You can also go to Processing.org and download pre-built Raspbian images with Processing already installed. To help you on your journey, there’s a resource for getting started with Processing. It includes a walkthrough on how to access the GPIO pins to combine physical computing and visual arts.

When you launch Processing, you will see a blank file where you can start keying in your code. Don’t let that intimidate you! All of the world’s greatest pieces of art started off as a raw slab of marble, a blob of clay, or a blank canvas. It just takes one line of code at a time to generate your own masterpiece.

Become a supporter

After this article appeared in The MagPi, the Processing Foundation put out a call for support:

We want you to be a part of this. Our work is almost entirely supported by individual one-time donations from the community. Right now we are outspending what we earn, and we have bigger plans! We want to continue all the work we’re doing and make it more accessible, more inclusive, and more responsive to the community needs.

To create lasting support for these new directions we’re starting a Membership Program. A membership is an annual donation that supports all this work and signifies your belief in it. You can do this as an individual, a studio, an educational institution, or a corporate partner. We will list your name on our members page along with all the others that help make this mission possible.

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Pi for the connected home

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This column is from The MagPi issue 55. You can download a PDF of the full issue for free, or subscribe to receive the print edition in your mailbox or the digital edition on your tablet. All proceeds from the print and digital editions help the Raspberry Pi Foundation achieve its charitable goals.

Since the original Raspberry Pi Zero came out, I’ve seen many makers using it for connected home projects. Its size, low price, low power consumption, and software package have made it a great option, even if makers had to use a USB peripheral to add connectivity. Now that wireless LAN and Bluetooth connectivity are built into Raspberry Pi Zero W, it makes this mini computer platform even better suited for home Internet of Things projects.

Raspberry Pi Zero W

Let me get this out of the way first: ‘Internet of Things’, or ‘IoT’, has all the trappings of an overhyped buzzword. But even if the term Internet of Things doesn’t stick around very long, the concept of connected devices is here to stay for good. It’s a clear side effect of increasingly affordable wireless connectivity technology.

It’s not just development boards that are becoming more connected. The consumer electronics devices that we buy for our homes are more likely to have wireless capabilities. Even a product as simple as a light bulb can be equipped with connectivity, so that you can control its intensity and colour with a mobile app or home automation platform. I recently connected our Google Home to our WeMo Smart Plugs so that I can control the lights in our home using my voice. Last week I was carrying a load of laundry into a dark bedroom. Being able to say “OK Google, turn the bedroom lights on” and having it instantly do just that was a magical moment.

As makers and technology enthusiasts, we have even more power available to us. We benefit from affordable connectivity when it arrives on hardware platforms like Zero W, and can create the connected devices that we hope to see on store shelves one day. We also benefit from being able to interface with consumer-connected devices. For example, a simple hack with a Raspberry Pi lets you use Amazon Dash buttons to control almost anything you want. (Dash buttons are usually used to order a particular product, such as laundry detergent, from Amazon with just a single press.)

Advanced IoT

If you want to go beyond the basics, there are cloud-based platforms that let you manage many devices at once, and create intelligent alerts and actions. Many platforms are already Raspberry Pi-friendly, including the Particle Cloud, Initial State, Cayenne, and Resin.io. Each has its distinct advantages. For example, Initial State makes it really easy for you to create custom web-based dashboards to show you the state of your own sensors and internet-connected devices.

And if you’re a beginner, there are platforms that make it easy to get started with connected devices. One in particular is called IFTTT, which stands for ‘If This, Then That’. It’s an easy-to-use service that lets you connect consumer and maker platforms together without needing to write any code. IFTTT can also go beyond your devices: it can interact with the news, weather, or even local government. In the first partnership of its kind, the City of Louisville, Kentucky recently announced that it’s now on IFTTT and sending real-time air quality data, which you can log or use to trigger your own projects. I hope that it’s just the beginning for IoT partnerships like these.

With all the recent developments in the Internet of Things realm, Raspberry Pi Zero W comes at the perfect time to offer affordable, portable, and connected computing power. The best part is that exploring IoT doesn’t mean that you need to go too far into uncharted territory… it’s still the same Raspberry Pi that you already know and love.

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Lifelong Learning

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This column is from The MagPi issue 54. You can download a PDF of the full issue for free, or subscribe to receive the print edition in your mailbox or the digital edition on your tablet. All proceeds from the print and digital editions help the Raspberry Pi Foundation achieve its charitable goals.

When you contemplate the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s educational mission, you might first think of young people learning how to code, how computers work, and how to make things with computers. You might also think of teachers leveraging our free resources and training in order to bring digital making to their students in the classroom. Getting young people excited about computing and digital making is an enormous part of what we’re all about.

Last year we trained over 540 Certified Educators in the UK and USA.

We all know that learning doesn’t only happen in the classroom – it also happens in the home, at libraries, code clubs, museums, Scout troop meetings, and after-school enrichment centres. At the Raspberry Pi Foundation, we acknowledge that and try hard to get young people learning about computer science and digital making in all of these contexts. It’s the reason why many of our Raspberry Pi Certified Educators aren’t necessarily classroom teachers, but also educate in other environments.

Raspberry Pis are used as teaching aids in libraries, after-school clubs, and makerspaces across the globe

Even though inspiring and educating young people in and out of the classroom is a huge part of what we set out to do, our mission doesn’t limit us to only the young. Learning can happen at any age and, of course, we love to see kids and adults using Raspberry Pi computers and our learning resources. Although our priority is educating young people, we know that we have a strong community of adults who make, learn, and experiment with Raspberry Pi.

I consider myself among this community of lifelong learners. Ever since I first tried Raspberry Pi in 2012, I’ve learned so much with this affordable computer by making things with it. I may not have set out to learn more about programming and algorithms, but I learned them as a by-product of trying to create an interesting project that required them. This goes beyond computing, too. For instance, I needed to give myself a quick maths refresher when working on my Dynamic Bike Headlight project. I had to get the speed of my bike in miles per hour, knowing the radius of the wheel and the revolutions per minute from a sensor. I suspect that – like me – a lot of adults out there using Raspberry Pi for their home and work projects are learning a lot along the way.

Internet of Tutorials

Even if you’re following a tutorial to build a retro arcade machine, set up a home server, or create a magic mirror, then you’re learning. There are tons of great tutorials out there that don’t just tell you what to type in, but also explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it at each step along the way. Hopefully, it also leaves room for a maker to experiment and learn.

Many people also learn with Raspberry Pi when they use it as a platform for experimental computing. This experimentation can come from personal curiosity or from a professional need.

They may want to set up a sandbox to test out things such as networking, servers, cluster computing, or containers. Raspberry Pi makes a good platform for this because of its affordability and its universality. In other words, Raspberry Pis have become so common in the world that there’s usually someone out there who has at least attempted to figure out how to do what you want with it.

MAAS Theremin Raspberry Pi

A Raspberry Pi is used in an interactive museum exhibit, and kept on display for visitors to better understand the inner workings of what they’re seeing.

To take it back to the young people, it’s critical to show them that we, as adults, aren’t always teachers. Sometimes we’re learning right beside them. Sometimes we’re even learning from them. Show them that learning doesn’t stop after they graduate. We must show young people that none of us stops learning.

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