Following this morning’s announcement of the BBC’s Micro Bit programmable computer, WIRED.co.uk takes a closer look at the new piece of technology, and speaks to one of the people behind its creation.
The first thing anyone will notice is how ridiculously small it is. We compared it to about half the size of a credit card; up close it’s probably a bit smaller than even that, though understandably a bit thicker. The second thing is that it blinks at you, thanks to a bank of 25 embedded LEDs. The only port onboard is a MicroUSB connector, but it does include low-power Bluetooth for some level of wireless connectivity.
While Raspberry Pi is indeed an influence, it turns out that the BBC’s effort isn’t trying to swim in the same pool. The Micro Bit — which is a working name — is deliberately lower powered, and intended more as an entry-level introduction to coding. The LED bank, plus two more “eyes” located separately on the tiny board, can all be individually programmed for simple messages or animation. Already incredibly lightweight, the safety pin on the back also gives away another of its intended purposes, as a piece of wearable tech.
“We talked to the people behind Raspberry Pi, they know about this and they love it,” Howard Baker, editor of the BBC’s Learning Innovations division which drove development on the Micro Bit, tells us. “They see it very much, as we do, as a stepping stone. This is a start, to give some inspiration and some immediate success to start you thinking about other things you can do. That then leads you on to thinking ‘Ah, what if I connect it to a Raspberry Pi?’ Then they’ll start to think about those problems and how to solve them, and how the two can join up. The key to it is that it’s easy enough to get started, but sophisticated enough to make that next step.”
Even as a “My First Coding Kit”, there’s some potentially very interesting tools on the Bit. It has both digital and analogue I/O, and will come with accelerometer and magnetometers built in. It will also have a more powerful chip on board when it’s rolled out to schools across the UK in September.
“What we’re going to move to in the next version is we’ll have ARM chips on there, Cortex-M0s,” says Baker. “One chip will have the Bluetooth on it, the other will have the accelerometer and magnetometer on it. We want to expose the instruction set on those devices to the end user.”
The Micro Bit is central the the BBC’s Make It Digital initiative, which is aimed at raising proficiency and understanding of coding and digital creativity across the country. Around one million units will be given to schools come the start of the new academic year, reaching the hands of all incoming students starting their secondary school education. Following that, Baker says, “there will be another batch, and we reckon around 7-800,000 through schools and 2-300,000 through other channels. Our partners may take some of those, and we know there are home-schooled children we have to reach, and other organisations that want to get involved.”
“We wanted this to be cheap enough to give away,” Baker adds. “It’s our partners that are funding this, but the funding level is because this is a very low-cost venture. We’ve gone for that sweet spot of ‘what’s the minimum we can put on there that gave the maximum benefit for the kids?'”
The device has been in the planning stages for around two years behind the scenes, with physical models available for testing for around 18 months. In that time, the Micro Bit has already been put through its paces, and started sparking some innovative ideas.
“We had a really nice example at Young Rewired State last year, where the kids from the BBC Birmingham team got overall second prize and won the Viewer’s Prize. We gave them a handful of Bits, didn’t tell them how to do anything, and they ended up creating a digital smart coat hanger system,” Baker says. “It was hooked up to a Raspberry Pi to connect with the weather service, and each Bit lit up over the appropriate clothing — sun hats on bright days, umbrellas when it was raining. We gave them the Bits and that’s what they came up with; it involved connecting with Raspberry Pi, it involved them coding it, all from their own idea. So we already know, if you give kids the opportunity and the tools, they’ll go and create.”
Although it won’t be as versatile as a Raspberry Pi, the unique hardware features and the wearable aspect of Micro Bit make it a very tempting tool to take your first steps into coding with. Seeing what kids — and undoubtedly older coders — come up with once it’s introduced widely will be very interesting.
Source: Micro Bit: hands-on with BBC’s coding kit, Matt Kamen ( http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2015-03/12/bbc-micro-bit-hands-on )