Interview: Raspberry Pi creator wants to bring hardware hacking to everyone

Raspberry Pi Foundation

There are plenty of microcontrollers out there that you could use to power your hacking projects. Arduino, Dwengo, BeagleBoard are just a few of your options. As well as these work, the DIY community now has another option at its disposal: the Raspberry Pi mini PC.

Raspberry Pi, from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, is a very small computer that's about the size of a deck of playing cards. Although it was originally conceived for use in schools, it's become a hit among tinkerers thanks to its flexibility and accessibility.

In the year or so since the Raspberry Pi came out, hardware enthusiasts have used it to build a device to stop telemarketers, a bunch of arcade cabinets, and a Lego-encased supercomputer, among other things. Plus, it recently gained an app store, making it even easier for you to download and share useful applications and tools, games, and tutorials. And outside the tinkering community, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has donated thousands of its computers to schools to help gets kids interested in technology.

We got the chance to chat with Raspberry Pi Foundation co-founder Eben Upton about the Foundation's work and what’s coming next.

Switched On Tech Design

GeekTech: How did the Raspberry Pi project begin, and what is its aim?

Eben Upton: We wanted to reverse the decline in the numbers and skill level of applicants studying Computer Science at Cambridge [University]. We believe very strongly that reaching people when they are young is the key to helping them develop a deep understanding of how computers work.

GT: Did you ever build your own projects?

EU: Absolutely. Before Raspberry Pi ate my life, I was an inveterate tinkerer. I still have an electronics lab at home, where I used to build things like [ a color-changing drink coaster].

GT: Why do you think more people are picking up Raspberry Pi instead of microcontrollers like the Arduino?

EU: I don't believe we've had a negative impact on uptake of the Arduino. What I do think we've done [is] to make an Arduino-like hacking experience available to a broader audience, by removing the requirement to have a separate host PC to develop on.

GT: Did you and the Raspberry Pi team expect it to become such a hit in the hardware hacking/ DIY community?

EU: Not personally, though Pete Lomas, who designed the Pi hardware, might disagree. I'm a software engineer by background, so in my mind I think I was assuming people would use it mostly for software projects.

GT: How do you hope that community can continue to encourage children to program?

EU: It's important for children to have somewhere to turn for help if they hit a roadblock while learning to program. Having a strong community helps provide this kind of support.

“We believe…that reaching people when they are young is the key to helping them develop a deep understanding of how computers work.”

GT: How well has Raspberry Pi taken off in schools?

EU: Very well. This year is mostly about enthusiast teachers using it to support extra-curricular activity (after school clubs for example). We hope that in the 2013-14 academic year we'll start to see more use of the Pi inside the curriculum.

GT: Given the popularity of the project so far, how do you hope to progress? How do you intend to engage those outside of the community?

EU: We hope to continue to deliver performance improvements to the platform, which should draw more people into the community. As a Foundation, we need to refocus our efforts on the core educational mission; we've become somewhat sidetracked this year by the success of Pi in the enthusiast community.

GT: Are there any limitations to the current Raspberry Pi that you would like to change?

EU: I'd like it if we could have afforded to add features like high-quality stereo audio output and Wi-Fi to the platform, but overall I think we've done well given the price point we set ourselves.

GT: Which is your favorite project that you’ve seen so far?

Video from Dave Akerman's Pi in the Sky project.

EU: Definitely Dave Akerman's Pi in the Sky [a Raspbery Pi-based creation that captures images from the edge of space].

GT: What advice can you give to anyone who wants to build their own projects, particularly using the Raspberry Pi?

EU: Come and visit the forums at raspberrypi.org, and don't be afraid to ask questions!

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