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David Zax

A View from David Zax

A $25 Computer that's Built to Inspire

A well-known British game designer has made a computer that he thinks will practically cost pocket change, and that fits on a USB stick-sized device.

  • May 16, 2011

How much did you pay for your computer? You certainly didn’t get it this cheap. David Braben, the forty-something British games designer, has just made a computer that he hopes to sell for just $25. The computer, which he calls Raspberry Pi, is so small it could fit in a USB stick. Who is it for? For the children, of course.

It might be adopted by children abroad, for one thing. At that price, Braben’s invention beats out the computers envisioned in programs like One Laptop Per Child, meaning it could find a home in poorer parts of the world where computers aren’t yet ubiquitous.

But Raspberry Pi is only partially about stimulating an interest in computers among children in the developing world. It’s also about stimulating an interest in computers–a real interest in computers, in their nuts and bolts–among children in the developed world, too. Braben has told several outlets that he feels modern-day computing lacks the magic it did back when he made his name, 20 or 30 years ago. Computing’s ubiquity and ease has, paradoxically, rendered computers invisible to us, in some ways.

The way Braben sees it, the world of computing has become polarized. Either you’re a tech whiz who can code in several languages, or you’re one of the masses depending on the user-friendly products they create. Braben wants to bring some of those masses more towards the middle. “There’s a big gap between the shallow creative things like drawing pictures and designing levels in LittleBigPlanet, to doing full on programming,” he recently told Gamasutra. “There’s very little in between.” Back in his day, he went on, “we had computers like the BBC Micro and the Sinclair Spectrum which you could tinker with and make quite simple programs.” He wants Raspberry Pi, which runs the Ubuntu version of Linux, and fosters curiosity about the inner workings of a computer due to its very smallness, to nurture that tinkering spirit in the next generation.

“The real problem is that kids are getting engaged as consumers of electronics but they are not getting engaged as people who use them to create,” he told Gamasutra.

A few specs on Raspberry Pi, beyond its OS: it has a 700MHz ARM-based processor and 128 MB of RAM; a HDMI port on one end means you can plug it into a screen, while a USB port on the other end lets you hook it up to a keyboard.

The computer is at prototype stage currently, but Braben outlined a plan of action for mass-producing it. He thinks he could bring the device out of beta within a few months, then hopes to sell the UK government and corporate sponsors on issuing it to school kids around the UK, some 750,000 of them.

There would seem to be demand for the device. After presenting the mini-computer on the BBC and then posting a video to YouTube, Braben has found that Raspberry Pi has become something of a viral sensation. That YouTube video recently surpassed a half-million hits.

“It’s been shocking,” he said. “Twitter went bananas.”

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