Thirty-five Pixels, powered by Raspberry Pi

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Creative Director and Interactive Developer Michael Newman was tapped by UCLA Extension to design their 2015 winter course catalog cover. To accompany his work, he also designed, developed, and built a Raspberry Pi-powered interactive installation called Thirty-five Pixels which is currently on display at UCLA Extension’s 1010 Westwood building through the 2015 Winter Quarter.

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Liz: Here’s a guest post from our friend Paul at Pimoroni, who has a really exciting Kickstarter to share. You know Paul’s work already: he designed the Raspberry Pi logo, and he’s the brain behind the ridiculously successful Pibow case. Over to Paul!

When I was in nursery school, our class had a BBC Micro. One day, it was my turn to play. I’d been ‘painting’, and being young and uneducated, didn’t wash my hands before using the computer, and got paint smears all over this shiny beige machine.

I got shouted at by the teacher a lot and didn’t get to play. Protecting the shiny new machine was more important than learning.

This is why I love Raspberry Pi. It’s a computer you can be rough and experimental with. If it breaks, it’s replaceable, unlike an expensive iPad or laptop.

Learning is more important than the thing you’re learning on. But this attitude of fear and reticence still prevails. We still see a lot of doubt, and a “that’s not for me” feeling when it comes to tinkering and plugging things into circuit boards. As much as we love playing with breakout boards, and the geekery involved, the friction that goes with it can easily turn a 10 minute job into an hour. Digging out wires, reading datasheets, and finding three blog posts with different libraries in various states of undress; we think these are unnecessary distractions.

So, being Pimoroni, we had a lightbulb moment and decided to fix a bunch of issues at the same time. A year later, Flotilla was born; making all these frustrations a thing of the past.

Flotilla is a system of smart, affordable breakout boards backed by great software that lets you easily use them on the Raspberry Pi. The idea is that you can just break out a Pi, pop in a Raspbian SD card with the Flotilla software installed, plug in the Dock then start playing and learning without knowing much of anything beforehand.

The first level is Cookbook. You plug widgets into the Dock. Cookbook suggests recipes that involve those pieces. So plug in a Light-sensor, a Barometer, and Cookbook might suggest you build a weather station or a Digi-pet.

The next step is Rockpool. A simple app-like interface for defining rules. So you can say “If the temperature is high, turn a motor with a fan on”. It’s impossible to get wrong, and can be used without typing. You can build surprisingly complex projects; such as line-following robots, musical devices and games.

The Pi can also act as a WiFi Access point and web server. This lets you connect to Flotilla from your tablet, phone or laptop, and control Cookbook and Rockpool from a web-browser. Great if you’re running your Pi from a battery. On a robot, say. :-)

After that, you’re into the world of Scratch and Python. We’ll be providing lovely Flotilla libraries to get you started.

The whole idea is top-down learning. People start by having fun, and doing and discovering what interests them. If they like it, they can delve further into how things work. Clive says it best in the video. It’s “learning by stealth”.

We’re pretty sure Flotilla is the first fully-fledged plug-and-play digital tinkering kit. We’re also sure that the Raspberry Pi is the right place for it. The easier it is for everyone to start learning, and being comfortable with computers and electronics, the more time scientists and engineers have to make spaceships, instead of a better coffee-maker, or pet-feeder.

We’re on Kickstarter now, and would love you to support Flotilla so we can turn it into something everyone can use, in schools, at home, in the lab, and contribute too :D


- Paul & Jon & the Pirate Crew.

Resources Restyled

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Back in April, when we launched a revamp of our whole website, we introduced a section of free learning resources. Recently we’ve been working on a new and improved design for the layout of this material, and we’re launching it today for a selection of our resources.

The new look and feel of our free learning resources

Our new in-house designer Sam has produced the templates along with a brilliant set of icons, components, characters, illustrations and bespoke GPIO and wiring diagrams.

The Learn and Make activities are:

We have also revamped a number of Teach resources, each containing lesson plans and links to the Programme of Study:

As well as a new guide to for teachers:

We think they’re looking great – and hope you all do too!

We’ll be migrating all of our resources into the new template in the coming weeks. The content still all lives on GitHub, and you can still collaborate; if you’re a regular contributor, you’ll notice that there are some extra files to make the templates work.

New recipe cards for our learning resources

Gotta collect ‘em all!


Remember all our resources are available for free under a Creative Commons licence, so you can print, copy, share, modify and do anything you want with the materials – we don’t want to restrict educators in any way! We know some of our Raspberry Pi Certified Educators from Picademy have been using their own modified versions of our worksheets to teach the Computing curriculum – it’s a great way of tailoring the material to the needs of their own students.

Those of you who are coming to see us at BETT this week will see we’ve also been giving out recipe cards for each of these new style resources, which again have been beautifully designed by Sam. Teachers – if you miss us at BETT, you can download these recipe cards to print out for your wall displays.

Carrie Anne leading the first session of the day at BETT

The education team out in force at BETT

Check out the rest of our teach, learn and make resources look through our BETT schedule on our website.

Social animals: electric eel tweets with a Pi

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Meet Miguel Wattson (geddit?), the most piscine member of the Raspberry Pi community. Miguel is an electric eel who lives in a tank at Chattanooga Zoo; and his keepers, with some help from some computer science interns, have decided to use Miguel’s tendency to generate electricity to do some showboating.



Electric eels (actually a kind of knifefish, so strictly speaking they’re electric fish, which sounds much less cool) have the ability to discharge up to 860 volts from three large organs made from electrocytes – organic cells which work like the voltaic pile in an early battery –  which they use to stun prey, to communicate, and to navigate. An electric eel at full power only discharges for a couple of milliseconds, but even so, has the ability to electrocute a full-sized human.

This is all very glamorous and exciting, but the problem for eel watchers is that all of this drama is silent and invisible. There’s no way to tell just from watching whether or not an electric eel is discharging. Happily, there’s a way around that.

Sensors (I’m guessing electrodes in the water, connected to ground, whose resistance can be measured – but I do not have an electric eel to test this setup on – your ideas in the comments please!) in Miguel’s tank detect when he discharges. These signals are sent to a LED light and speaker system in the aquarium, where they make static rapping sounds, and flash lights to demonstrate how frequently Miguel discharges. Here he is, doing his thing at feeding time.

But the aquarium team didn’t stop there. Miguel’s electrical activity also sends a message to the attached Raspberry Pi, telling it to send a tweet. Miguel’s Twitter feed is full of fishy puns, eel facts, and messages about conservation – along with the occasional “POW” and “BUZZ!” A database of tweets is constantly added to by staff at the aquarium (Miguel does not have fingers and consequently finds it hard to type)

“Ironically, the eel code was written in Python,” said Evgeny Vasilyev, one of the computer science interns  from Tennessee Technological University’s Business Media Center. “The project’s main set piece was Raspberry Pi, a low cost computer which provides all of the necessary functionality in a compact package.”

The Pi not only sends the tweets – it acts as a throttle to make sure that Miguel doesn’t start spamming the feed when he gets overexcited. Feeding time, for example, gets Miguel so overstimulated that he discharges more than once a second. The Pi keeps the frequency of tweets down to a reasonable level.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press has some video of the setup:

You can follow Miguel on Twitter at @EelectricMiguel. You’ll notice that he follows Tennessee Aquarium’s pioneering tweeting groundhog (no, we have no idea what a groundhog is doing in an aquarium), @ChattNoogaChuck, whose profile boasts that he is the aquarium’s chief seasonal forecaster.

If you’re following Miguel, keep an eye out on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, when he’s fed, for bursts of activity!

Fran Scott’s #Error404 show at BETT

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It’s not long to BETT now where the Foundation education team will spend four whole earth days doing great works.

As well as a non-stop stand schedule of talks, demos and activities we’ve also got a number of off-stand monkeyshines including two live stage shows by Fran Scott, who you may have seen recently on the Royal Institution Christmas lectures. Fran will be performing her show #Error404: The Explosions-based computing show and revealing “Computer Science for the problem-solving, creative and imaginative subject it innately is and through live interactive coding, humour and explosions(!)”. (That had me at “explosions” and I was reading the sentence backwards.)

If the Foundation’s had a mantra it would be “computing is not coding”. It’s so much more than that, in fact in the early years of education it should just be called ‘Thought-provoking Fun’. Fran’s show is a brilliant practical demonstration of that and she has a talent for explaining science and engineering principles in an entertaining way that everyone can understand. As well as computing the show hooks into the science curriculum (gases and combustion) and also contains dancing and bananas. There’s loads crammed in and it’s a fantastic show—it’s going to be packed so get there early!

To tie in with the show we’ll be giving away goody bags containing everything you need to make your own (non-explosive!) version of Pi-controlled balloon popping which would make a fab classroom demo or even a great way to wake your parents up in the morning.

Where and when

The shows are on Thursday 22 Jan at 13:10 and Saturday 24 Jan at 12:55, both in the BETT Arena. Fran will also be on our stand (The Hub! near N8 visitors’ entrance) on Thursday afternoon between 16:00 and 17:00.

Find out more

You can read more about the show on Fran’s site and also download an information pack which includes links to the English Computing curriculum. You can also get in touch with Fran if you want to find out more about the show.

Warning: Blowing stuff up and messing around with pyrotechnics is dangerous so do not do it. Fran is a trained pyrotechnician and a member of the Association of Stage Pyrotechnicians. Do not blow stuff up or set light to stuff or play with matches or stick red Crayola crayons up your nose (as my brother once did). Bad things will happen.

Introducing The Gert VGA 666 Adapter For Raspberry Pi

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One of the questions asked since the beginning of time is ‘why didn’t the Raspberry Pi have a VGA output?’. There were various reasons a few being board space and cost. The Broadcom chip at the heart of the Pi does have the ability to generate a VGA output but it wasn’t possible to implement on a Model A or Model B due to the GPIO header configuration.

With the release of the Model B+ and A+ it is now possible to take advantage of this feature.

The 40 pin header provides all the GPIO signals that the Broadcom SoC requires to construct the VGA signals. It needs to use a lot of them (all but six) but requires very little hardware to implement. The adapter consists of a PCB, a 40 pin header, a VGA connector and 20 resistors.

I first saw this demonstrated at a Cambridge Jam where Gert van Loo had a VGA monitor attached to a Pi via a small add-on board. The board was referred to as the “Gert VGA 666″, the 666 being a reference to it providing 6 bits per colour channel.

Gert explained he was releasing the design as open source hardware so the cost could be kept to a minimum by those people who would go on to make and sell batches of them. All the design files are available on the VGA 666 GitHub page.

The first team to take up the challenge was “Pi Supply” who ran a successful Kickstarter campaign. I backed the campaign and here is the kit I received for six of my Earth pounds :

Here is the device soldered up attached to a Model B+ :

The good :

  • Gives you the ability to use VGA
  • Resolutions up to 1080p @ 60fps
  • Cheap
  • Simple

The bad :

  • Doesn’t work on a Model A or Model B
  • Only leaves 6 GPIO pins free
  • Not as good as HDMI

The amazing :

  • Possibility of working alongside HDMI so you can use dual screens!

Yes dual screens from a Pi. For £6.

Assembly and Configuration

All the technical details as well as installation instructions can be found in the VGA 666 User Manual.

The “Using a cheap “Gert VGA 666″ VGA adapter – [HOWTO]” forum post explains the software configuration required including adjusting the resolution to match your monitor.

This video by Alex Eames shows a side-by-side comparison between the HDMI and VGA output from a Pi using this device :

It won’t suit everyone but for those of you that want a cheap way to use an old monitor it’s almost perfect. The device is available from Pi Supply.

VNC tutorial from 10-year-old Philip

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Philip Organ is a regular attendee at the Cambridge Raspberry Jams. He’s ten now; we first met him back when he was seven, when he sent us a video of a game he’d written for his Pi.

Philip (small) with me and Eben (large) at the last Raspberry Jam

Philip’s Pi shenanigans were impressive then, but he’s come on leaps and bounds in three years. Here’s his most recent video: a tutorial on setting up a VNC server on your Raspberry Pi so you can access it remotely.

I wish more tutorials were like this. Thanks Philip!


Raspberry Pi Big Birthday Weekend 28 Feb – 1 March 2015

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Raspberry Pi turns three (three!) next month and we would love you to come to our birthday party!

The party is so huge and packed full of stuff that we couldn’t fit it into one day so we’ll be taking over the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory on Saturday 28th February and Sunday 1st March for the Raspberry Pi Big Birthday Weekend. It’s going to be a buzzing behemoth benchmark of a birthday bash. Blimey!

There will be captivating talks, animated hands-on workshops, informative show and tell sessions and chatty panel discussions. There will be a marketplace to buy the latest Raspberry Pi add-ons and other cool stuff. There will be competitions, prizes and goodies galore and a chance to chat with the Raspberry Pi team over a nice cup of tea. There will be gardens bright with sinuous rills and little, fez-wearing monkeys riding unicycles. You really don’t want to miss it.

This is *exactly* what it will be like. But with fewer pancakes.

Each day will be different so feel free to come to both. As well as two days of all things Pi there will be an actual fill-yer-cakehole party from 4.30pm to 7.30pm on Saturday evening with food and drink (including a surprise birthday beverage).

So whether you’re a seasoned Pi person, whether you got a Pi for Christmas and would like to learn more or whether you’re just wondering what it’s all about then come along—we’d love to meet you. The Raspberry Pi Big Birthday Weekend is going to be a joyous celebration of creativity, technology and community so get your tickets now! Tickets are a scandalously reasonable £2.50 and entry is free for under 16s.

Get involved!

The party will be a celebration of all things Raspberry Pi which of course includes the amazing Raspberry Pi community. We’d like you to get involved and we are looking for people to:

  • give talks about Pi-related stuff;
  • run workshops or help run one;
  • take part in show-and-tell especially if you have interactive stuff or crazy inventions;
  • help run the day by spending a couple of hours as a marshal.

If you’d like to do any of these things (or have any other suggestions) then please get in touch. And if you’ve not done anything like this before then this is the perfect opportunity to help out, delight and inform us or just show off :) The party is being organised for us by Tim Richardson and Michael Horne—who are responsible for the excellent CamJams—so drop them a line and get involved!

We’ll also be running the Pi Wars obstacle course as first seen in the December CamJam so bring your robot along if you think it’s hard enough.

We’ll have a birthday webpage up shortly where we will post updated details of speakers, workshops and activities. If you don’t want to register yet but would like to be kept informed then sign up for the mailing list.

See you there!


Hacking the haulage industry

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Regular readers will remember that we featured Andy Proctor’s delivery lorry – hacked with a Raspberry Pi to become an Internet of Things delivery Andy lorry – back at the start of December.  The BBC found out about him too, and he’s featuring on the front page of their news site today, with a really nice little video segment about what he’s been doing. Here it is for your viewing pleasure. Thanks Andy!

Machine learning, combustion engines and real-time control

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What you’re about to watch in the video below is a magnificently physical example of machine learning. Adam Vaughan is controlling an engine with an adaptive Extreme Learning Machine algorithm on his Pi, which predicts homogeneous charge compression ignition (HCCI – if you’re  a petrolhead, you won’t have to look that up on Wikipedia like I did to discover that it’s a spark-free way of combusting fuel by putting it under pressure until it goes bang) in real time.

HCCI combustion is hard to predict – it’s near-chaotic – so the algorithm Adam designed has to take a huge number of samples (240,000 per second) to get enough data to learn how the engine behaves and to provide something so close to real-time control that you’d never know the difference. (It’s incredibly close to real time – there’s about 300 microseconds – that’s microseconds, or one millionth of a second; not milliseconds, which are a thousandth of a second – of latency here.)

The Pi is recording data about pressure in each of the engine’s cylinders, about the angle of the crank and about heat release – and on the back of that, it’s subsequently controlling the engine in real time over a controller area network (CAN).

This isn’t just a demonstration of how to do mind-bogglingly clever stuff. The research means that fuel efficiency can be improved, and CO2 can be reduced. If you’re interested in a more in-depth look, Adam and Stanislav Bohac have written a paper on the algorithm that’s being used in the video – go and read it if you want a maths and engineering workout!

Meet the Education Team at the BETT Show 2015

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On Wednesday 21st January 2015, the ExCeL in London opens its doors to the world’s leading educational technology show. As well as being a trade show, BETT provides an opportunity for attendees to hear world-famous speakers like education visionary Sir Ken Robinson and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales talk; to meet like-minded teachers, academics and technicians to share good practice; to attend free training sessions; and to find out more about what is happening in the world of ed-tech.

For the first time, our entire education team will be on hand, in our own curated space to answer questions, run Picademy-style workshops, and share our passion for Raspberry Pi in education.

Have some Pis in your school and want to get going with physical computing? Then Clive Beale has a giant GPIO model and will be using in in his ‘Let’s get Physical’ workshops. Are you a science teacher who wants to hear more about our weather station and space (Astro Pi) projects? Cornish computer scientist, Dave Honess, will be giving demos across the four days. Heard that we offer free resources to teach, learn and make with Raspberry Pi? Resource and web man Ben Nuttall will be able to tell you more. Want explosions? We’ve got plans for some of those too.

Clive explains how to connect GPIO to LEDs with his giant model

It’s not just the fun-loving foundation team who will be sharing Pi related activities. We will be joined by many of our Raspberry Pi Certified Educators and members of our friendly and active community too. To name but a few from our amazing line-up: we’ll be hosting Dr Sam Aaron, creator of Sonic Pi; authors Martin O’Hanlon and David Whale; representatives from Wolfram, Code Club and Nature Bytes.

Some sessions will be lead by our Raspberry Pi Certified Educators.

We’ve created a timetable of sessions on offer so that you can select those that interest you in advance.

Get your free ticket today, and we will see you bright-eyed and bushy tailed next week! (For those of you who won’t be able to make this event, don’t feel like you are missing out – sign up for the education newsletter today and we will keep you up to date with our events, resources and competitions.)

Cabe’s home arcade

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I’ve got one of those rubbish Dance Dance Revolution mats at home for my PlayStation. You may have one yourself – they’re prone to skating all over the floor, wrinkling up at just the wrong moment and generally mucking your game up. And occasionally causing horrible injuries.

Of course, with a little elbow grease and a Raspberry Pi, we can do better. So Cabe Atwell did. And while he was at it, he also recreated another favourite part of the arcade he used to hang out in as a kid, and made a geometrically faithful reproduction of the Street Fighter 2 control console. Cabe says:

I remember my local arcade used to give free tokens to those who received A and Bs on their report cards. Most of the time it didn’t matter for me. I would go into the arcade with one or two quarters, and shut the place down in the various Street Fighter games. The arcade closed down, and I wanted the exact same experience at home.

With Street Fighter, I found that the Sega Saturn had the best and closest experience to the arcade. So, I built an arcade controller for the Saturn. I measured the placement of the buttons prior to the arcade shut down. So, I was able to lay out regulation controls. I sourced real arcade parts from a now defunct company. It was fun. You may not think this, but arcade controllers are loud. All the switches are super sound in a quiet room. Arcades are full of constant noise, so, you never hear it!

My girlfriend was really into the Dance Dance Revolution, arcade dancing games. So, I built a “arcade quality” dance pad. I wanted something made of metal, heavy, and the exact size. All store bought dance pads were soft, moved around too much, or not the correct size. So, I built a dance pad for the Playstation 1 (aka PS1 or PSX).

He didn’t finish the project at the time – everything went into storage when Cabe went to college, and he forgot about them. But in the interim, something called a Raspberry Pi was released.

So Cabe recently dug out his old home-made arcade, rewired all the controllers to interface with the Pi, used a projector to make a giant 120in (3m) display, and downloaded an emulator and some games. As it turns out, everything works a treat.

Unusually for projects around these parts, you won’t need any code to make your own, just some game downloads – but there’s a fair amount of hardware work required, which Cabe gives pointers on over at Element14. If you’re interested in making your own metal DDR pad (my friend Mark made one nearly 20 years ago when we were at university, and it’s still going strong), there are lots of tutorials out there – this was the most comprehensive we found.

Piano stairs

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At a Princeton hackathon a while back, Bonnie Eisenman did something rather wonderful to a flight of stairs using a Raspberry Pi, some lights, an Arduino and a handful of photoresistors.

Bonnie, I can’t believe you only won second prize. This is amazing.

A while later, Bonnie made build instructions and code available on Instructables – and since then, some other people have been posting video of their own staircase piano hacks.

This one, from Alyssa Zachariah, is from Halloween, when she made the stairs up to her front door into a piano for trick-and-treating kids.

And there are home applications too: here’s William Kreutinger’s family staircase, piano-fied.

There’s a little soldering involved, but soldering is easy, and this is not a hard build – in fact, it’d make a really good first project if you’re new to hardware hacking. Fancy making one yourself? Head over to Instructables for a how-to, and let us know how you get on!

Royal Institution Christmas Lecture 1 – video!

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As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader, we sponsored the Royal Institution’s 2014 Christmas Lectures. They have just made the video of the first of the Lectures – the one with all the Raspberry Pis in it – available to watch online, wherever you are in the world. It’s really worth your while – the Lectures make up some of the year’s best educational TV.  Click here or on the image to visit their channel and view.

We’d like to send our very warmest congratulations to this year’s presenter, Professor Danielle George, and to her husband: baby Elizabeth was born just after the lectures aired. (Great choice of name, team George!)

Raspberry Pi Spy Top 10 Posts of 2014

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Now that the Christmas decorations are back in the attic, and I’m looking at what Pi projects to tackle in 2015, I thought I’d take a look at my web stats.

Here are the Top 10 posts on my site for 2014 based on number of page views :

  1. Simple Guide to the RPi GPIO Header and Pins
  2. Running A Python Script At Boot Using Cron
  3. Raspberry Pi Command Line Audio
  4. Analogue Sensors On The Raspberry Pi Using An MCP3008
  5. Ultrasonic Distance Measurement Using Python – Part 1
  6. Playing Videos On the Raspberry Pi Command Line
  7. 16×2 LCD Module Control Using Python
  8. How To Use A MCP23017 I2C Port Expander With The Raspberry Pi – Part 1
  9. Raspberry Pi 1-Wire Digital Thermometer Sensor
  10. Top 10 Things to Connect to Your Raspberry Pi

Over the entire life of my site the Top 2 most popular articles are :

  1. Simple Guide to the RPi GPIO Header and Pins
  2. Top 10 Things to Connect to Your Raspberry Pi

It’s nice to see the popular posts are the ones that appear to support other people creating things with the Pi. I hope everyone who visited in 2014 found something useful that helped them either learn something new or formed part of a Pi based project.

In total my site saw over 1.7 million page views. When I first started creating websites in the mid 1990s that was simply the stuff of dreams.

I wish all my visitors a great 2015!

A “hello” from a hobbyist-turned-evangelist

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Hello! I’m Matt Richardson, the newest member of the Raspberry Pi team. I’m so excited to be on board because I’m such a big Raspberry Pi fan. Ever since I first got my hands on a board in May of 2012, I’ve been doing a lot with Raspberry Pi. I made projects like this bicycle accessory, I produced videos about Raspberry Pi, wrote articles, gave talks, and even teamed up with a friend to write a book about how to get started with Raspberry Pi. There’s still so much that I want to do, which is why I’m so glad to be a part of the team.

A selfie with my first Raspberry Pi taken in May of 2012.

Before coming to Raspberry Pi, I was a contributing editor for Make: Magazine, the premier magazine for makers. Raspberry Pi was my beat for a majority of my time there, so I kept an eye on Pi projects, hardware, and accessories. I also had the chance to go to many Maker Faires to give talks and meet fellow makers. As part of my new position, I’ll continue to go to Maker Faires, but now I’ll help carry the Raspberry Pi banner in an official capacity.

I’m based in San Francisco and as a Raspberry Pi Evangelist, I’ll be responsible for outreach with a focus on the United States. I’ll connect with organizations, talk to people about how they use Raspberry Pi, and make regular appearances here on the blog. If you’d like to connect with me, I’m on Twitter, where I post about Raspberry Pi and all my other interests including technology, making, art, design, travel, airliners, ham radio, television, and a small dash of politics.

I’m looking forward to being involved in all that lies ahead in the realm of Raspberry Pi!

Das Wordclock

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We loved this project from Bernd Krolla – it’s beautiful, it’s useful, it taught him some stuff he didn’t know already – and it’s way, way cheaper than buying something like this ready-made in a store would be.

This is not the first Wordclock we’ve seen, but it’s by far the most elegant, and it’s beautifully made. It does more than tell the time; you can change the colours using capacitive touch, display low-res images on it using each letter as a pixel, and send ticker-style messages.

Bernd sent this video to me just before Christmas, and I was planning on blogging it this week anyway – but he surprised me this morning with a GitHub repo where people wanting to make a Wordclock of their own can find all the code they’ll need. He’s also made a build writeup available.

If you want an English layout, the ability to add more words to the set, or a differently shaped display, check out Miniature Giant Space Hamster’s instructions on using genetic algorithms to create an optimal layout in your own language. (Go for the eyes, Boo!) Or you could just adapt a layout you find online – but where’s the fun in that?

New QPU macro assembler

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Since Broadcom released complete documentation for the VideoCore IV GPU back in February 2014 we’ve seen a number of fun uses of our 24GFLOPs of QPU compute, from Andrew Holme’s FFT library to Pete Warden’s deep learning experiments. It’s not unusual to see a 10x increase in performance over the ARM for algorithms with a decent amount of parallelism.

A platform is only as good as its development tools, so it’s a great start to the New Year to see a new QPU macro assembler from Marcel Müller. This builds on Pete and Eman’s earlier QPU assemblers to include support for macros and functions. Along the way, he’s even managed to squeeze another few percent out of the size and run time of Andrew’s FFT library. You can find source, binaries, documentation and sample code here.

Changes to the Raspbian user interface

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I should start by introducing myself. My name is Simon Long, and my claim to fame is that many years ago, when in charge of recruitment at Broadcom in Cambridge, I interviewed some guy called Eben Upton. We thought he was pretty good, so we gave him a job – and the rest is history…

Even more years ago than that, though, I worked for ten years as a software engineer attached to the industrial design team at Cambridge Consultants, responsible for user interface design, simulation and implementation. I’ve designed interfaces for a wide range of products, from medical devices to surveying equipment to mobile phones. I love making things intuitive, attractive and easy to use; my aim is that people shouldn’t need to open the manual.

Unfortunately, moving into management some years ago meant I didn’t get to do all that fun UX stuff any more. I really missed it though, so when Eben offered me the chance to come and do it for Raspberry Pi, I leapt at the chance. I’ve been with them for four months now, and it’s been a blast.

I took a look at the LXDE environment in Raspbian on day one, and, while perfectly functional, I felt it could do with a bit of a tidy up. I’m not about making changes for the sake of change, but a lot of the behaviour was inconsistent and potentially confusing to the user, and I wanted to fix that as a priority.

User interface design is mostly about applying consistency, really – users get used to the way something works, and if something else works slightly differently, it jars. (As a designer, you can use that to your advantage sometimes, for drawing someone’s attention to something, but you don’t want it happening all the time!) A lot of the changes I have made are quite subtle – for example, when you move the mouse pointer over the menu bar at the top, everything now highlights in the same colour – previously, hovering the mouse over something on the menu bar had a fairly random effect, colour-wise.

With regards the move of the menu bar to the top, on which a few people have commented on the forums – in this respect, Apple got it right and Microsoft got it wrong. (I suspect Microsoft got it wrong on purpose, to avoid being sued by Apple when they launched Windows 95…) The reason for putting the bar at the top is simple – we read (in Europe and the US, at least) left to right and top to bottom; because of this, the first place you instinctively look in a UI is the top left corner. Your eyes automatically follow the mouse pointer, so when you click on a menu heading, the menu should drop down, as that way your eyes can then read downwards from the mouse pointer. Hence the menu button is now at the top left, and if you right-click something on the taskbar, its menu drops down. But it’s all about personal choice at the end of the day – if you prefer the menu bar at the bottom, feel free to move it back there; just right-click the menu bar and choose a new position in the Geometry tab of Panel Settings.

People have also commented on the removal of the “Other” menu category. Another fundamental of UI design is MECE – “mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive”. In other words, make sure the menu has everything you need in it, but each thing should only be there in one place. The “Other” category was a huge catch-all that didn’t really hold “other” stuff; it actually held everything, which is why it was so huge. Many things in it had confusing names (and actually, if you tried them, quite a few didn’t even work…) As a UI designer, a great long list of everything is something you avoid like the plague, so the first thing I did was to try to impose some form of MECE-ness on the menu; you’ll also notice that a lot of the names and tooltips have changed in an attempt to make it a bit easier to explain what is actually in the menu.

A final thing I should mention – by default, there are now no icons on the desktop other than the wastebasket. I strongly believe that it is up to the user to customise their own desktop – put the stuff on there that you actually use often, not the stuff that we think you might use, otherwise it just gets cluttered with stuff you don’t need. It’s easy to add a desktop icon for a program you use a lot – just right-click its menu entry and choose “Add to desktop”.

What you have seen is the first release of the modified desktop, but there is a lot more to come. People have already mentioned a new interface for accessing wifi networks to replace wpa_gui – that’s having some final tweaks and testing, but will be available in the next release. I think you’ll like it….

Raspberry Pi is an awesome computer, and I’m thrilled to be working on it. I’m going to do my best to make the user experience as awesome as everything else, but do feel free to comment on the forums about the UI changes. While there is a lot of psychology behind it, UX isn’t an exact science, and it really helps to know what users think. I can’t promise individual replies to every comment, but rest assured I’ll be reading as many as I can and taking what you say into consideration whenever possible.

Adafruit capacitive Christmas shenanigans

Raspberry Pi -

I got up late today; it’s Boxing day. And there in my inbox was a festive message from our friends in New York, PT and LadyAda, who found themselves at a loose end in the Adafruit factory on Christmas Day and took some video of a beta test they did for a new Raspberry Pi HAT (coming soon to a store near you!)

Merry Christmas from all of us at Pi Towers to everybody reading – we hope your Christmas holiday is as much fun as ours is this year!

A quick housekeeping note: we are not committing to the usual blog post per day this week because we’re supposed to be taking a break, but if we get bored with hanging out with our families, you’ll find something here, so keep checking. I’m off to make a sandwich out of leftovers.


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