Eben Upton talks Raspberry Pi at SFL's Horizons event
Looking back and looking forward! Things got deliciously geeky during the weekend of the festival this year as SFL and Imperica took over the BFI, celebrating the ZX Spectrum’s 30th birthday. Whilst indulging in stories and tech from the past, attendees also had a chance to get up close and personal with the future as the new Raspberry Pi computer made a special appearance. The Horizons programme featured key industry speakers, artists, musicians, fans plus a tasty cake and was packed out during the two days.
After a musical performance inspired by classic computers and gaming from MJ Hibbett, the first talk on day one was from Bletchley Park tour guide PJ Evans who lead the audience through a whirlwind tour of the Spectrum’s family tree, focusing on how the British computer industry grew from Colossus; the first programmable electronic digital machine created in 1943 which has been lovingly rebuilt over 15 years by volunteers at the National Museum of Computing. After admitting that very few photos exist of the original Colossus, it was interesting that next on the programme was Digital Archaeologist Steven Goodwin who delivered a well humoured yet important talk about preserving our computer legacy with some good advice on how to back up work. Reminding everyone that “It’s not that no computer innovation took place in the 1980s, just that none of it was recorded”, attendees set to documenting the event on Twitter and Facebook, capturing the positive, genuinely warm-hearted mood and impressions of the day, sharing their memories, photos and generally geeking out.
The break welcomed the arrival of a massive Raspberry Pi themed cake with creamy icing and tart raspberry layers. Created especially for the Horizons event by Beth Watts, former pastry chef for Gordon Ramsey, the cake was beautiful and tasty; a perfect accompaniment to musical whizz Matt Westcott who delighted attendees by coding live! Taking requests from the audience, he spectacularly Rick-Rolled everyone for an hour as he created a chiptune version of Never Gonna Give You Up. Lightning quick on the keys, musicians in the audience couldn’t keep up with the speed and accuracy of his composition which was perfectly in tune retro fun! The afternoon continued with Dylan Smith teaching us how to make chipboards in the comfort of our own homes using sheets of copper, a printer, an iron and some chemicals before demonstrating how to stream films and run a twitter client through his Spectrum! Digital artist and Head of Projective Geometry at the Institute of Unnecessary Research Alex May not only had the best job title of the weekend but gave a personal and charming insight in to how the Spectrum continues to inform his artwork. The day finished with Saul Metzstein, director of the hugely popular BBC4 drama “The Micro Men” sharing anecdotes from behind the scenes and his impressions of the Spectrum’s creator, Clive Sinclair. With over 2 million downloads of “The Micro Men” on the BBC iPlayer, Saul revealed the depth to which they researched the piece and some of the quirky information he discovered like how Clive’s calculator would give the wrong answer if the battery was low and that it only took two takes to shoot the telephone angrily being thrown through a window scene (during take one, the phone bounced off the window. Take two was a success after they filled the phone with concrete)!
Day two continued the Spectrum celebrations with journalist Rupert Goodwins getting the audience laughing as he explained how he was unexpectedly employed by Sinclair after a chance meeting at a dinner party - though part of his job was really to spy on Acorn and that after putting two batteries in it, he could hit 60 MPH in a C5 around a car park! Chris Smith then took everyone to the depths of coding as part of his Harlequin project. He explained how he has rebuilt a Spectrum from scratch after redrawing the architecture across 20 pages of A3, using over 3000 transistors, 1000 gates and through sourcing as many original components as he could. He also revealed that the original Spectrum would never have been born if a microscopic fleck of dust hadn’t found its resting place in the EXACT spot where there was a broken connection on one of the ULA chips.
Another round of Mountain Dew later and the kit came out for the Antics Roadshow. If it had a sniff of Spectrum about it, someone owned it, had brought it to the event and was lovingly showing it off. Old copies of “Your Spectrum” magazine were dotted across tables full of leads and monitors. We played Jason Railton’s fabulously addictive Tetris style, crate stacking, slicing-up-baddies arcade game BuzzSaw. With some very clever coding to manipulate the colour changing timing resulting in some very special cycling rainbows effect, Jason has managed to completely destroy the Spectrum's 'two colours per square' rule and his game looks spectacular for it.
Then the Pi arrived…
Following the rise of the home PC and games consoles, dwindling numbers of students, or students with only a basic grasp of programming have been taking up programming courses as the art of tinkering about with computers and learning how to code has almost been lost. Working with his colleagues at the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory, Eben Upton has set to turn the tides with the creation of the Raspberry Pi. A credit-card sized (86mm x 54mm x 17mm) computer weighing only 45g, the R-Pi plugs into a TV and keyboard and is capable of running desktop jobs like spread sheets, word-processing and games plus can play high-definition video. There are currently two models available; Model A has 256Mb RAM and a USB port whilst Model B has 256Mb RAM, 2 USB ports and an Ethernet port. Demand for the R-Pi has gone wild as each model costs under $30! We sat down with Eben before his presentation to hear more:
SFL: Welcome to Sci-Fi-London Eben. Clearly there are a lot of people here who are excited about getting a glimpse of the new Raspberry Pi. Are you surprised at the reaction it’s had?
Eben Upton: Yes! I mean, obviously, we hoped it would be well received and we’re thrilled at the response but it’s beyond what we expected.
SFL: What is the current demand for the Raspberry Pi?
Eben: Well, the first batch to be sent out was 7,000 and we’re about to ship out another 4,000 as batch two with the view to ship at least 120,000 by the end of June, but expressions of interest was around 350,000 last time I checked and that’s based on rationing to one per person. Obviously these are cheap enough that a lot of people don’t just want one, they want two or three or ten. Those people that want to buy them for a class currently can’t and that’s a priority for us to sort out.
SFL: You created this because you wanted to get kids back into programming and make it so that it would only take a few weeks of saving up pocket money or cheap enough that parents would be more inclined to buy for their kids. What do you think about people who are already familiar with programming and are buying into Raspberry Pi for the nostalgia?
Eben: Fairly early on, we realised the initial ones weren’t going to sell to kids because they don’t know about it yet! We need to see some work done to make it suitable for the very entry level. We need to have that smooth fill from being ‘hello world’ to becoming a professional software engineer. There’s a programme called ‘Scratch’ which has been developed at M.I.T. which is good for very young kids aged 6 or 7 and these are the sort of tools we’d like to get working on the platform. People buying the Pi for nostalgic reasons is an indirect route to our destination but that’s a good thing. That was the one thing we did underestimate, just how much enthusiasm there would be around the world. There are genuinely millions of people who have this memory of a time when we had programmable hardware, and that still come together to celebrate that, like this event today.
SFL: A lot of what has been shared at this event has been from the programming aspect and what lies inside the Spectrum. Was the design of the Raspberry Pi the most important thing to you or was it the potential of what it can do?
Eben: Wouldn’t it be awesome if in 30 years time, we were in a room celebrating the Pi? I think we have a real chance to accomplish our goal, given that our goal is to get more kids into programming, into college, into the workforce and we really hope people will look back fondly on what we're trying to achieve. They might not meet up in a room… But yes, it’s exciting to think what might happen. The next step is to make it appeal more to kids, make them want to pick this up rather than ignoring it in favour of their iPhones. I think we should be looking at including some content on there, maybe some games.
SFL: Finally, speaking of games, what’s your favourite game?
Eben: I’ve been playing Journey recently and it’s extremely good. I’ve just finished it. Amazing in fact.
Thanking Eben for taking time to chat with us, we turned our attention to the final presentation of the day from Matthew C. Applegate AKA Pixelh8 who has worked with a huge range of famous musicians including Damon Albarn, VV. Brown and Imogen Heap as he uses old consoles and computers, even modified electronic toys from the 80s as musical instruments. Now dedicated to teaching kids how to use technology to make music, his work and attitude to how the Spectrum can still be used as a creative tool was impressive and a perfect way to end.
Huge thanks to Paul Squires and Leila Johnston from Imperica for all the work they put into the Horizons event and to everyone who came and made this a real celebration!