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By Gavin Walker
Various initiatives are underway to encourage a better knowledge of computers - those mysterious electronic boxes that many of us spend hours in front of, but as they get more advanced, we’re less likely than ever to understand what goes on inside them. The latest innovation was released recently in the (tiny) shape of the Raspberry Pi Zero - an extraordinarily cheap and bare but complete computer. So cheap, it’s currently being given away with a magazine. So bare, there is no case; all the electronics are deliberately visible and accessible, to encourage people to view, access and tinker with. The aim is for people to get hands on, learn about and use these machines and the underlying hardware.
Like many current software and electronics engineers I got my introduction to software on the 1980’s 8 bit micro-computers, in my case the ZX Spectrum. Getting it to do anything involved either trying to load from a tape, write code yourself or copying it from a magazine or book. Writing something was simply a case of starting to type into the computer. That was it. No mouse. No polished graphics. No software libraries to do the hard work for you. So everything you wrote had to be done from scratch, which involved esoteric commands, specific to each system, and relied heavily on reference of the user manual. Eventually, however, you would get something to happen – and then, as now, there was a strange delight when the block you’d spent an hour programming slowly blinked across a screen.
The ZX Spectrum had a connector at the back hooking directly into the memory and processor, giving a tantalising glimpse inside to the electronics. There were some commercial hardware packs available but out of the reach of the average schoolchild. The alternative was to build your own with one of the myriad of hobbyist books that described small projects. I had a go to try and build a scanner – which actually was a cork with a hole through it with a light sensitive diode jammed and taped into the top. Laser scanning it wasn’t! But it worked.
Little did I appreciate at the time that I was getting an introduction to electronics, coding and bug fixing that would form the basis of my career.
Nowadays modern PCs, laptops and tablets are reliable, quick and easy to use without needing any knowledge about the inner workings. Hardware is widely available, professionally packaged in a sealed box which requires simply plugging in to work, which for most people is ideal. However there is a concern that this abstraction means that people understand less about what is happening inside; and as computers become more ubiquitous and integrated an understanding is arguably more important.
Yet software can be written far more easily; there is lots of information available and it is easier to set up. Most software and electronics engineers have had a go at writing their own mobile phone app for example, and the barriers to entry for this are lower than ever. The problem is modern systems insulate you completely from the hardware. And consequently the underlying complexity to handle the hardware communication is huge and off-putting to the casual and the curious. For example, the USB has a spec consisting of over 50 documents, the longest of which is over 600 pages.
But does this all matter? Well, yes. Easy access to both the physical hardware and general availability of those early computers, such as the ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro (both designed in Cambridge), is often attributed in part to the UK now being a world leader in software and electronics. The ARM processors (also designed in Cambridge!) found in many of the world’s mobile phones are a direct descendent of the chip designed for the BBC Micro.
So now, the Raspberry Pi Zero is aiming to give people the opportunity to easily interact with computers again, inspiring schoolchildren and curious adults to tinker and build, and construct and imagine. The Zero is unimaginably more powerful than its 8 bit predecessors, and is actually more powerful than the original Pi released a just couple of years ago, at just a fifth of the price. They are so cheap people can try things without the worry of damaging it: they simply buy another one if it breaks. The underlying hope is that these new devices will inspire young people into science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects and careers, but also increase understanding of possible computing and electronics solutions for people who choose other disciplines. This makes it easier for feasible solutions to be realised that can then be implemented and lead to the next wave of technology.
The software engineers at Cambridge Design Partnership have cutting-edge expertise in designing and writing complex software systems, including work on a number of award winning products. We provide software capability for the embedded controllers found in many mobile phone applications, PCs and other consumer products – and write medical device software to the requirements of IEC 62304 under our ISO13485 quality system. Our team’s capabilities cover the entire process from identifying user requirements, UX design, software design, implementation & testing to production installation and support. This of course forms part of our holistic innovation process that includes product designers, mechanical and electronics engineers and manufacturing specialists.
Please call us on +44 (0)1223 264428 or email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to discuss your project with one of our software specialists.
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