The Raspberry Pi has been a cause of such excitement that individuals, open source projects and companies alike have been developing complementary hardware and software well in advance of its availability. Romilly Cocking is the Director of Quick2Wire, a brand new start-up that has been working away on a Raspberry Pi experimenters kit. I caught up with Romilly and he kindly agreed to be interviewed.
Could you provide us with an insight into how you became involved with electronics and computing.
My uncle was an electronics engineer who worked on Radar and other exciting things in WW II. I used to love picking through the components that he had in his workshop at home. In 1958, when I was eleven, he took me to the Business Efficiency Exhibition at Olympia and I saw a Ferranti Pegasus Computer. I knew instantly that was what I wanted to do with my life.
I bought all the books on computing that I could lay my hands on, and a little later founded a computer society at my school. We had an electronics kit to play with and I gave a series of lectures on digital electronics. I've still got the notes somewhere!
Before I went to University I got my first job in computing, working on the Atlas computer at London University's Institute of Computer Science. The Atlas was one of the most powerful computers in the world. Folklore had it that whenever the original Manchester Atlas was turned off, the computing power in the UK instantly halved.
Can you tell us about your company, Quick2Wire, and how it came about.
I've been following the Raspberry Pi for a while, and as you can see from my earlier reply I have a longstanding interest in helping people learn about hardware and software. It was clear to me that the Pi had fantastic potential to excite the next generation of programmers and engineers.
To keep learners motivated, you need to make the first steps easy and fool-proof. I wanted to create a hardware and software environment that would help to do that.
Before I retired I was lucky enough to work with a lot of very talented developers who had similar interests. We decided to get together and start up a company.
In your opinion, what is special about the Raspberry Pi and what opportunity does it present?
The Pi is powerful, affordable and extensible. That's an amazing combination. Within the UK it's a pocket-sized computer at a pocket-money price; if you want to do something risky with it, and manage to brick it, it's annoying but not catastrophic. That encourages experimentation, which is a great way to learn.
In the developing world, the Pi is a computing platform that many communities can afford. It needs a screen and a keyboard, but it's still very inexpensive. Knowledge and social inclusion are two vital elements in helping to raise standards of health and education; the Pi can help a lot.
I understand that Quick2Wire are developing a Raspberry Pi experimenters kit — what will this comprise of and who is it aimed at?
The first kit will have four main elements:
1. An interface board, which will help to protect the Pi and shift the GPIO, I2C and SPI pins to 5v. That way you can use the same components as you would with an Arduino. The board will have a number of connectors on it, and the kit will have cables to plug in.
2. A set of things to connect to the board, including LEDs, buttons and switches, potentiometers, LDRs and other interesting stuff.
3. A comprehensive set of experimenter's instructions.
4. Sample Software to drive the experiments.
The kit is aimed at the same audience as the Pi - hobbyists like me (though mostly a bit younger!) to start with, and then schools when we've gained the experience to scale up and support a large user base.
Broadly speaking, how important would you say are skills in microelectronics and computing?
Britain still has some of the best engineers and software developers in the world, but many are getting near retirement. We need to make sure that we replenish the supply!
Software is becoming more and more important in many parts of engineering. If we are going to maintain and grow our manufacturing base we need good software skills.
How can the engineering community help to ensure that the Raspberry Pi is a success in education?
We need to make sure that the Pi is part of a rich and supportive ecosystem. Good hardware and software are a great start but newcomers need a supportive community. We need to foster that.
How can we go beyond the Raspberry Pi — what else can be done to increase the quality of computing and electronics teaching in schools?
In recent weeks we've seen some excellent initiatives that have transferred skills by pairing software practitioners with teachers. That could be one way to help raise the knowledge of engineering in the classroom. We also need enthusiasts to go and share their enthusiasm with students. There are lots of good STEM initiatives under way which engineers could support.
The benefits afforded by use of open source technology in education are clear, but what advantage does a company such as yours gain from open sourcing the hardware designs and software that are used in its products?
Firstly, we open the door to other people's ideas. It's much easier to contribute to the development and enhancement of a product if it's open source.
Secondly, our users can feel confident that they are not locked into a proprietary product range, and that they don't have to rely on a single company to supply it. That should be seen as very positive by both the hobbyist and educational markets.
Do Quick2Wire have any other products in the pipeline?
You bet! We plan to introduce more experimenter's kits for the Pi, and provide kits for more ambitious projects. The sharp-eyed may have noticed than we own a domain called http://piinthesky.co.uk/ (hint, hint!) and several of us are interested in using the Pi to control 3D printers and CNC equipment.
We may also adapt the kits for use with the BeagleBone and mbed.
Thank you for your time, Romilly!
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