Old and New at Sci-Fi London 2012
A major highlight of a week of activity at the Sci-Fi London festival was the Horizon Spectrum event at the BFI Southbank celebrating 30 years of the Sinclair Spectrum 'home' computer. I attended the session on Sunday supporting Eben Upton of Raspberry Pi fame in the ‘Future‘ slot.
I took with me a couple of demonstration Raspberry Pi boards, one set up with a copy of the Fuse Spectrum emulator ported across by Andy Taylor, and the other set up to show off its HD video capabilities. We had the old Spectrum game ‘Manic Miner’ running: very popular with all the middle-aged visitors smitten with nostalgia, and young children for whom it must have seemed very unsophisticated. It was just a bit disturbing how many adults remembered which keyboard keys were used to play the game! The other Pi played a CGI cartoon movie. That really showed off the fast, smooth HD graphics. Even more amazing to people who remember using audio cassette recorders for mass storage, is that this video, a copy of the game Quake 3 and the Debian operating system sit comfortably on an SD Flash memory card with plenty of space left over. The two demos side by side showed how much things have advanced in 30 years.
While the Pi demos ran outside the presentation room, inside the audience was treated to some great speakers who have pushed the old Speccy to the absolute limits. I really liked Matthew Applegate’s (AKA PIXELH8) presentation on electronic music produced by combining the weedy bleeps from a typical old PC with the clicks and whirrs of mechanical components. A ‘show and tell’ session revealed the amazing level of enthusiasm that remains for such an old and obsolete piece of kit. The things you could do with 48k of RAM...
Finally we came to The Future and of course Raspberry Pi. Eben Upton, the driving force behind the project described his background as a Director of Studies at Cambridge and his discovery a few years ago of just how few students had any interest in computer programming. The concept of Raspberry Pi was to design a cheap, basic computer to be sold for a near pocket-money price, kick starting an interest programming the way Clive Sinclair had done with the ZX80, thirty years before. His experience of computer science students mirrors my own of electronic engineering students while I was an admissions tutor at Loughborough University over 10 years ago. When I was a schoolboy in the 1960’s and early 70’s I had all the inspiration I needed to go for an engineering career: the UK had a space program, built some of the most powerful computers in the world, designed fantastic aircraft – innovation everywhere you looked. By the 80’s it had all gone leaving a few visionaries like Clive Sinclair to carry on. I was a postgrad student when I built my ZX80: I didn’t need any encouragement, I was already hooked! Most of the guys in that room started their careers in computers thanks to Sinclair’s electronics and the BBC Micro. Now we need to do it again.
I had a mild dig at the audience, suggesting that they switch their undoubted talents for clever programming from old technology to the new. After all, Raspberry is fully Open Source and depends on enthusiasts taking a piece of hardware and creating an exciting application. The kids can’t do it on their own: they will need help learning to be good programmers. I would like to see a revived interest in hardware design. Raspberry Pi can be used to control real systems with motors, relays and sensors, but it will need interface hardware. The I/O connector has a number of general purpose digital input/output pins as well as three sorts of serial bus: SPI, I2C and UART, All these will need buffers because the processor chip pins are somewhat vulnerable unlike many of the microcontroller chips on the market. Let’s see some innovative designs, naturally developed using DesignSpark PCB!
One issue that came up during the Q & A session was the suggestion that Raspberry Pi is a serious competitor to Arduino. Let’s knock that one on the head straight away. The standard Arduino is built around an Atmel 8-bit microcontroller running at 20MHz. If this device is streets ahead of the old Z80 microprocessor of the Spectrum, then the 32-bit 700MHz ARM11- core Broadcom chip of RasPi is on the other side of the solar system. They are not in competition: they are complementary. Take my favourite topic as an example, mobile robots. The Arduino can provide the drive signals for the motors and process sensor data using its on-chip analogue-digital converters (ADC). The RasPi runs the high-level program, perhaps using Artificial Intelligence and communicates with the Arduino via a serial bus.
Deliveries of Raspberry Pi are ramping up. Personally I can’t wait to see some really great original designs coming through – described on DesignSpark of course!
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