David Braben on why the small device can change the fortunes of the industry
Raspberry Pi is a computer the size of a USB stick that it is hoped will breed a generation of tech-literate creatives, and next month the developer units go on sale.
Remarkably small and inexpensive, the diminutive platform is the creation of a collective of experts from a range of backgrounds with one common interest; returning the teaching of computer science to its former glory.
There are many motivations for reinstating the school subject muscled out by ICT teaching in the UK in the late 1990s.
A computer science literate generation will benefit tech and creative industries the world over, will be better trained for an increasingly computerised future, and might even make some video games that define the sector in ten or 20 years
Perhaps the most well-kown member of the Raspberry Pi Foundation is David Braben, co-writer of Elite and founder of Frontier, the studio behind Kinectimals and Lost Winds.
Braben’s belief that computer science as a subject is under-represented lead him to join a group called Computers in Schools.
The body is a collective of teachers and professionals dismayed by the demise of education focused on programming and creative computer use.
“At Frontier we noticed in the mid-2000s that the number of graduates applying to us had dropped off,” explains Braben.
“Of course, I wondered if it was just us, so I contacted various people in universities who I know through my roles on various advisory boards at different educational bodies.
“They told me that privately it was even worse for them, because the number of computer science admissions had dropped hugely, some of them down by a factor of four. That's not little; that's a huge drop. I started to think it couldn't be a coincidence.”
Concerned by how the trend would affect the games industry and its contemporaries, Braben found himself involved in the design and creation of Raspberry Pi, which will be available to buy for as little as $25.
The unit itself, set to initially be available in two different configurations, is a remarkable piece of kit. While the final size is yet to be confirmed, the device sits easily in the palm of the hand, can output both HDMI and SD signals, accepts USB, and, with the addition of a screen, mouse and keyboard, offers a full computer at an incredibly low price.
“Today people are just taught to become consumers – something that will happen anyway,” says Braben of the public’s attitude to computers and software.
The vision of he and his Raspberry Pi colleagues, then, is to change that trend.
“People should be able to understand they can be creators,” he insists.
“If you can be a bit savvy about computers it means you can make bigger decisions on your own and get more out of things. Just things like writing a little piece of script to saving yourself having to do something 500 times is a skill and mind-set most people don’t have any more.”
“A group of us formed a registered charity and set out to make something as cheaply as possible that would be a tough, robust and open platform that would make it easy for teachers to share software, and allow people to be creative,” says Braben of Raspberry Pi’s early days.
“We also wanted to provide a central venue, probably some sort of website – where people could upload stuff as long as they were prepared to put it into the public domain.”
The need for a core community – and the public domain ethos – is central to why Raspberry Pi even exists.
Previously the efforts to spread interest in computer science training by groups like Computing in Schools were hampered by the fact that the rare examples of educational programming software developed by teachers were hard to distribute.
This was partly because of the fragility of modern PC in the classroom, and partly because of the expense and difficulty of installing compilers.
In fact, in the 1980s heyday of computer science in UK schools another platform was inspired by the same problems.
The BBC Micro was robust in terms of both its physicality and digital innards. It offered a standardised platform throughout UK schools, and allowed teachers to deploy simultaneously to an entire classroom.
The iconic form of the BBC Micro will be fused into the memory of anyone who grew up in 1980s Britain, and now it has partly inspired the creation of Raspberry Pi.
“One of the things computers like the BBC Micro, the Spectrum and the C64 did, and hopefully the Raspberry Pi will do, is make people realise that a computer isn’t a hugely complex intractable beast that you need a PHD to understand,” states Braben.
“It’s actually no different from so many other devices that appear to be complex but really aren’t.”
Another inspiration came from the success of video games that popularised relatively intricate modding and user generated content creation.
Of course, Braben gives a nod to LittleBigPlanet, but it was also Frontier’s own Rollercoaster Tycoon and its ‘Ride Exchange’ that made the industry veteran realise a central depositary for the uploading, downloading and sharing of teaching aids could be the factor in priming a generation to be empowered by computer literacy.
“This could create a real snowball effect,” offers Braben. “The teachers would feel more supported than they are at the moment, and it could make really very complex concepts that would be very easy to teach that kids would be really up for.”
The Raspberry Pi Foundation hopes to distribute units to every pupil in the UK across one school year – some 650,000 students.
With that distribution model repeated each year, ultimately the computer could end up in the pockets of every child in secondary school education in the UK. And there’s even been interest from both powerhouses like America and up and coming countries in Africa.
While Raspberry Pi was created to address problems in the UK, it really does have the potential to help spread the message of computer science across the globe.
The tiny computer – which is designed first and foremost as a creative platform rather than a place to run software – has also attracted interest from hobbyists, robotics experts, and wannabe game developers looking to gain the computer skills they failed to secure at school.
“I think that Raspberry Pi could also be a software platform running on a PC,” adds Braben.
“There’s no harm in that. We’re really just trying to provide a vehicle so that there’s a way of getting enthusiasm back into kids.”
While unrelated in an official capacity, Raspberry Pi also makes for a perfect compliment to the efforts of those striving to implement the findings of the recent UK Government-commissioned Livingstone Hope report.
An effort spearheaded in part by Eidos life president Ian Livingstone, the report set out with very similar goals to Raspberry Pi; namely to reinstate computer science as a core literacy.
“The Livingstone Hope report was really a clarion call, and a very good attempt at putting into perspective what this issue is,” says Braben.
“In fact, I think this is about a wider issue than even the Livingstone-Hope report covers, because that focuses on the creative industries. The creative industries aren't the only ones that can benefit from computer science.”
Whatever the differences between the two approaches, the games industry in the UK and globally is sure to gain if the Raspberry Pi Foundation or Livingstone-Hope initiative realise their goals.