The remarkable story that is Raspberry PI completed its third year with a celebration at Cambridge University’s William Gates Computer Science Laboratory in the UK. The two-day 3rd Birthday of Raspberry Pi drew about 1400 people, many of them families with children moving among workshops, talks, demos and a marketplace of vendors. Of course, being a birthday party, there were balloons, even mylar ones that spelled Raspberry Pi. Later, there would be pizza and a beer named Irration Ale that had raspberry flavor.

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“The Stuff We Have to Do Right”

Raspberry Pi Founder Eben Upton gave the morning keynote, which I missed while making my way up from London by train. Later, I saw Eben and his wife, Liz. I had a chance to talk with Eben for a few minutes. We were interrupted only by a young girl and her parents who sweetly asked Eben to autograph the official Raspberry PI enclosure, which was given out to attendees.

I asked Eben what he was thinking about Raspberry PI after 3 years. “The big thing I think aboudt is how the 10-15 people who work for me are focused. I think about how dwarfed we are, how few resources we have,” said Upton. “We have to be really good and my engineers need to stay focused on the core platform, the guts, the stuff we have to do right.” Upton believes his handpicked team is exceptional, made up of engineers who are 10 times better than most. I asked him what is it in their background that he looks for that distinguishes them. “It was their hobbyist interest, “ he replied immediately and forcefully. “They hacked on computers as kids, they hacked on them at night, this is what they do,” Upton added. “You might only have one chance in your life to hire the very best,” he said, adding that he’s chewing through a list of the 20-30 best engineers he knows, having already selected ten of them.

Eben Upton was one of those kids who at about age 10 knew that he loved computers and started hacking them. He eventually went to Cambridge University in engineering but dropped out in his third year to pursue a startup. “I knew how to code, but after a while I realized that I wanted to learn the theoretical bits,” he said. So he returned to Cambridge to get his degree and eventually his PhD. Now he was back at Cambridge University Computer Science Laboratory with his Raspberry PI team and many mostly local contributors to the Raspberry PI worldwide ecosystem.

I asked Eben what he thinks about the impact of Raspberry Pi. He replied: “Look at the kids.” He said he gained a recognition about kids at his first Maker Faire in New York in 2011. “I saw how many kids were lined up to talk to us,” he said. He particular remembers a young maker nearby, who I know to be Andrew Katz, who was exhibiting an Arduino-controlled dollhouse. “I was amazed by what I saw kids doing,” said Upton.

He is very concerned that developed countries like the UK and USA are not developing their own engineers at a significant rate. Instead, countries such as China and India produce them for us. “We must do a better job of developing our own talent,” he cautioned. This implies also getting more people involved. “Certainly, we want to see more girls get into coding but look at it this way, we also have only about 5% of boys,” he said. “That’s a rounding error.” He believes that more people should learn to code. “Having ideas is not a contribution,” he said. “Implementing ideas is how you make a real contribution.” He explained that you don’t want to just have ideas that you give to other people to implement, but you should want to implement them yourself.

“We’re Not Too Young”

Teacher Sway Humphries led a session titled “The Pi in Primary” and she introduced four of her students, who were around 10 years old. Humphries said she learned about Raspberry Pi and thought it would be good to use in her school. When she requested that her school buy them for her class, she was turned down “because they thought Raspberry Pi was too new and not yet proven.” Undaunted, she brought her own in, and began working with the kids. Word began to spread with other children asking her what this “Cherry Pie” was. Through her participation in an “Hour of Code” challenge, she won a pack of Raspberry Pi’s for her class, and that really got things started. “I gave them to the kids and said: ‘Have a go. See what you can do,’” she related. They began building their computers, and just getting them up and running was a proud achievement shared by the group.

Her students, whom she called “Digital Leaders” were amazing. One boy said that when he heard students talking about Raspberry Pi, he thought they were talking about brownies and cupcakes for a bake sale. Quickly, he learned otherwise, but he added: “The first time I saw a Raspberry PI, I thought — that’s not a computer.” Others described their experience working with Raspberry Pi as “exciting, fun and scary.”

It was interesting to hear the kids talk about how they felt about computers. In school, they were being taught Word and Powerpoint — how to use computers. (And this was being said by kids no doubt unaware that the building was named after Bill Gates.) “Once you learned how to use those programs,” said one of the students, “there’s not much more about it to learn.” Another said that the Raspberry Pi was “fun to use and hard to use.” None of them felt that they understood computers until they began working with a Raspberry PI. One said that he didn’t know how to code but he was learning and he could see that it was possible to do many things with it such as math, music and games. That led to the following prize-winning remark by one of the 10 year olds: “People who think we are too young to code are WRONG.”

Shooting Penguins and Black Rhinos

I enjoyed a talk by Jonathan Pallant of Cambridge Consultants. He explained the process of developing remote, real-time photographic stations for use in studying penguins in Antartica and catching poachers of black rhinos in Africa. He walked through the list of requirements that one of his clients presented him and how he had to come up with a solution that could withstand temperatures to minus 40 degrees and be able to take color photos at night and by day, and remain in the field for months running off batteries. Pallant discussed how he could use the Iridium satellites in orbit to transmit photos in real-time back to researchers. In the case of penguins, researchers would have had to install a camera, hope that it operated successfully for many months and then return months later to retrieve the images. Now, this Raspberry Pi-based solution packaged in a rugged enclosure would allow researchers back in England to see photographs on the same day they were taken in Antartica. Pallant said that it made so much sense to develop a custom board when the Raspberry Pi was so capable — and inexpensive.

Shipping All Night Long

A panel of vendors spoke about setting up stores to sell Raspberry PI and how they were developing accessories for sale. Jamie Mann started The Pi Hut  after first selling pre-loaded SD cards on eBay. Mann said that he now has 200,000 customers and he has sold about 15,000 units of the Raspberry Pi 2. The Pi Hut is a lean two-person operation. Mann said that if the orders that come in don’t get filled by the end of the day, he stays up all night long to do the shipping.

Other popular vendors such as Pimoroni shared several different “hats”, which is the Raspberry Pi name for what Arduino calls a “shield.” The Skywriter is a capacitive touch sensor and the Propeller Hat creates an interface for a Parallax Propeller chip. The Unicorn Hat provides a colorful, addressable display.

Demos That Were Brilliant

The award for the most unexpected demo has to go to Martin Mander for his “1981 Portable VCR Raspberry Pi Media Centre.” Just seeing a VCR tape cartridge made me pause, pun intended. Mander’s business card describes what he does as “Upcycled Retro Technology.”

The Talking Throne was a fun, interactive exhibit that seemed to interest both kids and adults. First, you chose a “title” for yourself, placing three set of words in a wooden board. Three examples I saw were: “The Invincible/Spider of/The Island”, “The Bloodthirsty/Monster of/The Shire” and “The Cheeky/Shadow of/The Universe.” Then you sit on a throne that sports a set of tall horns. That triggers the sound of trumpets followed by an announcement in a bold, regal voice reading your “title.”

I talked to the designer of the Talking Throne, Henry Cooke of ELK. Cooke, who has a background in software and video game design, said he was used to designing for interaction with a mouse and keyboard. Creating physical interaction was much different. “You need to find the logic of the interaction,” he said, adding that he tried to “think what you would do if it were a magical thing.” For him, the trick is that the user “shouldn’t know that it’s digital.” Many people figured out how to use it without anyone telling them and they were delighted. They didn’t need to know that he was using NFC to communicate which words a person was holding, but Cooke was there to explain how it works, if you wanted to ask him.

Thomas Preston created an app that can take a photo of you with 40 Raspberry Pi-enabled cameras simultaneously. He asks you to jump and then he triggers the cameras. His application creates a video where you appear frozen in time as the perspective of the camera moves around you. Thomas said it was meant to simulate a popular scene from “The Matrix” and he wanted to call the project “Bullet Time” but he may end up using the name “Frozen Pi.”

From the EDSAC to the Raspberry PI

In the lobby of the Computer Science Laboratory, there is a display citing some of the historic achievements of the Lab. Behind the glass was the metal chassis with small vacuum tubes for the EDSAC II, built in 1958, which was “the first full-scale microprogrammed machine.” In the same case are the first versions of the Raspberry Pi. At just three years old, the Raspberry Pi is already making computing history in its “Back to the Future” way.