Sunday 10 June 2012

Raspberry Pi, and the Raspberry Jam

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending Manchester's first Raspberry Pi event, called (what else?) the Raspberry Jam, hosted by Madlab. It turned out to be a great day, and I'm glad everyone braved the rain to make it.

I'd received my own Raspberry Pi a few days ago, and hadn't had much chance to really get to grips with it. It attracted a lot of attention in the studio, word spread around that a few of us had received our boards and from that point onward we had a steady stream of nerds coming over to fawn over them for the rest of the day. It's not hard to see why: they're strikingly small, to the point where it's hard to believe these tiny things are usable computers ("where's the rest of it?" came up a few times).

I got my board home and was expecting a bit of a fight getting it set up: Twitter and the RaspPi forums give the impression at the moment of it being a struggle for some, and being a Linux newbie I wasn't expecting it to be a smooth process. However, I was up and running in about an hour, after using the RaspPiWrite tool to download and create a Debian SD card image. Rather than doing everything manually, the tool (a python script you run through the terminal) does everything for you. I left it running, and without any hiccups I had a working Pi:

(Eagle-eyed readers will note that it's running on a bedroom TV rather than a monitor: the Raspberry Pi doesn't have VGA out (and quite right too), instead using HDMI as the primary output. This does present a problem for me, as I only have an old VGA monitor, so for now I've moved the TV out of the bedroom and stuck it on my desk. Sorry, wife!)

So, on to yesterday's jam. It was a full house, which was great to see. Lots of people already had boards with them, and generally everyone was up and running with them already. The organiser, Ben Nuttall, gave an intro talk, which turned into kind of a roundtable discussion about what people want from the day, which was great to see. There was a good mix of people: a few curious developers like me, some more visual people, a couple of completely none-tech folks who'd seen all the press coverage, and everyone in between. 

One of the things I was really pleased about was the fact that there were a few younger members in attendance too: of course one of the big objectives with the whole Raspberry Pi concept is to get it into schools and shake things up, so it was really interesting to speak to some of the kids and find out what they think of the whole thing (general consensus was very enthusiastic, but being a geek meetup this was probably a biased cross-section of people to survey!)

I met one of the youngest Manchester Girl Geeks, 13 year-old Amy, who'd come to the event with her mum Lisa and her little brother Dan. I was helping them get their Pi up and running, and while we were waiting for it to download Amy showed me the work she'd been doing using Scratch: I was absolutely blown away. Amy had created a full Pac Man clone, with collision detection and scoring and everything, using no code. She was explaining that you can import photos into Scratch too, so we challenged her to add her own face into the game in the place of Pac Man. Challenge accepted! Amy took two photos (so she could make it look like she was chomping like Pac Man, of couse), cropped them down in Scratch...

...and then replaced the artwork in-game:

Scratch also comes bundled with the Debian distro we'd installed, so Amy immediately transferred her files over to the Raspberry Pi and carried on making games. Impressive.

Meeting Amy and Dan has really got me thinking: I have a young sister about the same age, and I think she'd absolutely love to get stuck into the Girl Geek thing. I'll definitely be following their events more closely now, I had no idea that all age ranges were catered for. They're doing great work, and it would be great to support them, so hopefully I'll be able to add a Girl Geek to their ranks! 

There were a couple of great sessions over the day too, which were small half-hour talks that happened alongside all the general tinkering. The first one I caught was an intro to 3D printing, which was really interesting. 3D printing as a technique doesn't appeal to me much, as I don't know what I'd really use it for (although that doesn't usually stop me messing with stuff), but it was really cool to hear about how it all works. There were some 3D-printed Raspberry Pi cases passed around, which were really neat. I might ask the guys at Hacman really nicely if I can print out my own case (although a Lego option is sounding good too).

The other session I caught was an intro to Python for none-programmers. It was of course really basic, but actually served as a good intro to the language for me too. Python is again something I'm not sure I'll currently need in any practical sense, but I find it incredibly interesting as a language compared to the kind of strictly-typed code I work with now. Python is also the language that's being pushed alongside the Raspberry Pi in an education setting, so I'm interesting in picking it up a bit more just out of sheer curiosity. Of course, our intrepid Girl Geek Amy immediately left the Python session and got herself up and running in an IDE (with a little help from organiser Ben):

The final session I caught a bit of was Bob's talk on coupling the Pi with an Arduino to work in hardware projects, which was another really interesting use for it. At £25, it's feasible to utilise a board permanently for a project, it's cheaper than an Arduino Uno and you can do anything with it. 

And that was that. The Raspberry Jam turned out to be a really great event, and I think everyone gained a lot from it. I was kind of on the fence about how practical the Pi really is, but actually as a device it's cheap and small enough to do absolutely anything with it. It's going to be very interesting to see if this community enthusiasm carries over to the education side, and I sincerely hope it does. In the meantime, this kind of event is exactly what the community needs to be doing: making lots of noise about the cool stuff we're doing, and increasing the chances of more people picking it up. As a developer with sisters of high school age, it was really amazing to see someone like Amy pick up this technology and run with it. Hopefully this will continue!

Big thanks to Ben for organising the event, and of course Madlab as always for making sure this kind of thing keeps happening in Manchester. High-fives all round!

1 comment:

  1. Dan. Thank you *so* much for writing this so promptly. I really wanted to attend, but was unable to. I hope this will encourage others to attend #RaspberryJam events local to them. We have events lined up in Preston, Sheffield, Durham, London and at Raspberry Pi HQ in Cambridge.