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Interview: David Braben's Big, Bold, Wonderful Plan

Industry veteran and Frontier founder David Braben laments what he sees as a dwindling number of programmers -- now he hopes his Raspberry Pi device can do something about it in schools, and possibly retail.

Colin Campbell, Blogger

May 9, 2011

6 Min Read

Late last week, when David Braben announced Raspberry Pi - the $25 computer on a stick - he expected a reaction. But nothing like the one he got. The YouTube video announcing the gadget is currently standing at over 415,000 views. "It's been shocking. Twitter went bananas," he told me this morning. Speaking from Cambridge, England, he outlined his plans for the device, which he hopes will bring real creativity back to how people interact with computers. The big plan is to roll his device out to school-kids, so they can start learning computer science, just as Braben and his generation did back in the day when they were using early home computers to create magical worlds, like his space trading classic Elite. But here's something new - Raspberry Pi could also be released as a commercial product, to retail. Having fun with computers isn't just for the children. Braben says, "We've been talking about that. We'd have to charge for it. What we are considering is that we would charge a slight premium to help subsidize the [educational] part. That's what we are discussing." Who does he think would buy such a thing? "Me! I'd love one. There are lots of people who'd want to just use it as a gadget. Sure, people who are geeks, like me, people who are computer fans. There's no shame in that." Raspberry Pi is a beautiful idea, wrapped up in an strange little package. It's a 700MHz ARM11 processor with 128MB of SDRAM, locked together with a USB port, and a HDMI connection, or composite video. Users are invited to stick it in the TV, connect a keyboard and begin playing with the Linux system. It's a gadget, but first and foremost, it's a charitable effort to get youngsters excited by the possibilities of programming. Braben says he became "very upset" at the dwindling number of applicants to his games company Frontier Developments (Kinectimals, LostWinds) showing up with computer science bona fides. Turns out, people are less willing to take up computer science when they leave school than in years gone by. Braben lays the blame squarely with teaching methods that stress an "office skills" approach to learning about computers. "It's very dull," he says. "Knowing how to use Word, Excel, Powerpoint are useful skills but they take the fun out of computers. Computer science is about making things, creating things. It's about, 'wow, I just made this.'" It doesn't help that makers of computers market their products as enablers of creativity, even though that creativity is largely superficial. Apple would have us believe that stringing some digital pictures together with your favorite Strokes song is an act worthy of the grand moniker, art. This is the fantasy world in which making a mix-tape somehow makes a person musical. Computers give kids the ability to create things - pictures, movies, musical compositions, even videogame levels - but only within pre-designed frameworks. Computer programming allows anyone to create pretty much anything. Braben says, "There are lots of creative tools at the high end, if you already have a lot of computer knowledge, but there's a big gap between the shallow creative things like drawing pictures and designing levels in LittleBigPlanet, to doing full on programming. There's very little in between. In my day we had computers like the BBC Micro and the Sinclair Spectrum which you could tinker with and make quite simple programs, and they can easily engage you." I make the point that Braben's generation was grappling with the first home computers, exploring a whole new range of possibilities, creating things that had never been seen before; that maybe the new generation might find home programming less of an adventure. He puts me firmly in my place. "I think that is absolutely untrue. They may not have the same impetus to discover, but there are so many dimensions to discovery. Discovery does not have to be completely unique. We get a buzz if we go to any new place on holiday, now, obviously we're not the first people to have gone there. Doing new things that are creative rather than consumptive is what I want, because once kids are engaged you can go much further. "For example, we could give simple access to YouTube or to Twitter or to Facebook where they can, in a scripted way, process the input or the output. That is fantastic, because they can create things that are theirs, even if it's just identifying references to their friends and inserting rude words. I think that would get kids quite amused and it has taught them a lot in the process. It's engaging kids with discovery." So here's the plan with the educational thing. Braben and his team release Raspberry Pi out to beta in a few months time, and a software base begins to emerge. A platform goes online that allows educators to upload and download educational software, all for free. (Braben says he's tired of seeing "amazing, beautifully coded programs that are only ever used by the teachers who made them.") Next, he goes knocking on the door of the government and corporate sponsors to fund releasing the computers to an entire year of school-kids - that's about 750,000 students in the UK. (It would be great to see an appropriate brand step up to help fund this important work.) Perhaps the biggest challenge is persuading schools to add computer science to their study courses, but he says it's in their benefit. Most schools use horribly out-dated PCs that are constantly breaking down, and require expensive sys-admin care. Raspberry Pi can just reset and it could be used to teach simple IT courses as well. Finally, there's the international effort, to get these computers into the hands of students in countries around the world. Braben says, "The hardware we've got supports HDMI and it also supports composite video. It's a pretty indestructible device. TVs are virtually ubiquitous." He concludes, "The real problem is that kids are getting engaged as consumers of electronics but they are not getting engaged as people who use them to create. And I think that's a loss." It doesn't matter to Braben what they create, although the gamer in him would like to see games being made. "I would hope some of them will make games Some of them might make financial software. Even better, maybe some will make things that we've never seen before." You can help by visiting Raspberry Pi's website or following David on Twitter. (@DavidBraben) [As well as being business editor for Gamasutra, Colin Campbell works for a marketing agency. You can follow him on Twitter at @brandnarrative.]

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