David Braben Making A USB PC For £15?

By John Walker on May 9th, 2011 at 3:17 pm.

Braben's hand is not included.

David Braben, he of Elite fame, has unveiled a PC that fits on a USB stick, the Raspberry PI. He has also unveiled a brand new way of pronouncing “obfuscated”. The device has an HDMI in at one end, and a USB out at the other, letting you plug it directly into a television, and then attach a keyboard. Braben’s rather egalitarian idea is that it would be cheap enough (“Ten to fifteen pounds,”) that every child could own one, with the idea that they could learn to program. It sounds really promising. But are there some issues, too?

Of course Braben also recognises that it could be used to check Twitter, Facebook, email, and so forth. But his real goal here is to demystify programming for people, especially young people, taking away that which makes it seem daunting, and presenting something incredibly simple that will encourage users to experiment for themselves.

It would also provide access to social media, email, and web browsing for those from poorer backgrounds, who do not have access to PCs in their own homes. But Braben’s real passion here is to bring back an interest in programming for those in schools, since such skills were lost from the curriculum.

There are plans to see it rolled out within twelve months. So in that time, I’d offer a couple of suggestions. Because, well, from the video below he could have glued a block of Lego to a bit of circuit board for all we can tell – it’s never plugged into anything to demonstrate.

The first thing is, I’m not sure which of the uses he suggests can usefully be carried out without both a mouse and a keyboard. I’d strongly suggest working out a way to get two USB slots into it if possible. While that would obviously hugely increase the power demands, it would make it viable as something that could practically be used. With one USB it’d be essentially useless. There’s no point in creating the thing if it requires a dozen adaptors and cables to be of use to anyone.

Also, while it’s a rather lovely idea that such an item would open up access to the internet for poorer families, that’s not exactly practical. I’d suggest that if a family were unable to afford a £200 PC that could perform similar tasks, then they’re unlikely to have a modern TV with HDMI input, attached to a cable or satellite network capable of providing internet access.

Clearly Braben is seeing the world through his own eyes a little here, too. I love computers and love using computers, but I’ve absolutely no desire whatsoever to program. I tried it, and hated it. So the idea that every kid in every school would become compelled to start creating their own software is a touch optimistic. However, I like it when other people do it for me, so it’s clearly a fantastic thing for getting access to those who do want to, who otherwise might not have the opportunity.

If the concept can be a little more carefully thought through – perhaps designed to plug into cheaper, older TVs and monitors in some way (adaptors ahoy), and especially with either a USB splitter or the capacity for two inputs – it could have legs. Seriously, it has to be two inputs, right? You could plug whatever the next generation of open platform phones are into it, your USB storage device for backing up, even a gamepad.

It’s definitely something worth keeping an eye on. Thanks to Simon for the tip.

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152 Comments »

  1. Baggypants says:

    Maybe you could click that link you posted and look at the very first picture to see how Braben himself deals with some of the issues you have.

    • qrter says:

      It’s funny, because to me, that picture makes it look quite complicated.

    • John Walker says:

      Yes, that’s a prototype, and clearly not an option for a school kid using a USB device.

    • JWendin says:

      @John – The computer labs would most likely have something resembling a simple makeshift docking station for these, similar to what we used to program the 68k-based microcontrollers at Uni. Simple plug-n-tinker. Also – you don’t really need a mouse to learn how to program.

  2. ZIGS says:

    But can it run Crysis?

  3. Aymes says:

    You’ve never been curious about coding your own game? ….Ever? Blimey.

    • Xercies says:

      I’ve been curious and then I actually looked at some coding and I was very put off, everything about coding goes way over my head

    • Aymes says:

      What did you look at? I wouldn’t suggest looking at C++ or anything to start with.

      Nothing wrong with a bit of Basic (see my comment about blitz for example lower down)

    • HexagonalBolts says:

      I’d *love* to learn to code, but it’s so arcane. Type ‘learn how to code for gaming’ or ‘learn how to code’ and you get a billion messy and often outdated results back, with no clear idea where to start. Ask in a forum where to start and people will just begin to argue about which language you should use. I bought a book on the subject and the program it taught had slightly changed its commands which rendered the book fairly useless.

      I would absolutely love to learn to code though, and I have no delusions of crafting anything worth looking at without a good deal of hard work.

      So I ask you people of RPS – where should I go to learn to code games?

    • Batolemaeus says:

      You should first learn the basics of coding, THEN think about coding small games.

      Personally, I think languages like javascript, c++, c# or java are all useless for teaching the basics.

      Start with something simple, like BASIC, or my favourite, Pascal. They have little confusing overhead with tons of parentheses and whatnot, letting you concentrate on what you want to do. Switching to a more complicated and powerful language later, once you’ve learned the basics, is pretty easy.

    • HexagonalBolts says:

      Thank you, any recommended books, or preferably websites?

    • Premium User Badge

      Oozo says:

      The way I’m trying to learn very basic programming myself right now: Game Maker.

      The obvious advantages are: You can start with the drag&drop UI to learn about some basic principles (objects etc.) and then switch over to Game Maker Language once you can handle them. (Trying to recreate the games I did with D&D in code was a nice challenge and excercise.)

      Plus, it has a community that is pretty friendly to complete noobs like myself, and provides helpful advice often mere minutes after you’ve posted your question.
      I guess that I should move on to other languages some time soon, but Game Maker is greatly satisfying, because it is just THAT damn easy to get something up and running, which always makes me feel all fuzzy and warm inside.

      PS Also, there are a lot of good ressources on the official site, tutorials and so on – plus “The Game Maker’s Apprentice” which as a book is not great, but more than fine.

    • randomnine says:

      @HexagonalBolts: If people are arguing over the best language to use… odds are, you could get started just fine with any of those languages. Don’t be put off by the shouting, just pick one there’s a lot of help available for.

      One relatively painless way to get into serious game making if you don’t have any programming experience is to download FlashDevelop and try making games with either Flixel or Flashpunk. You’ll need to learn ActionScript as you go.

      Here are some basic Flashpunk tutorials:

      http://flashpunk.net/?p=tutorials

    • Spooner says:

      Try something like Pygame, which is a 2D game making library using a modern scripting language (rather than making you use an archaic or needlessly low-level language). I personally use Ruby with the Gosu library ;)

    • simoroth says:

      @HexagonalBolts I’ve tought programming to several undergrads and am constantly getting people on their feet with games dev on the RPS steam chat.

      As said above Python would be a good starting language. Its very powerful, but very forgiving and doesnt have thousands of features that you need to understand.

      Would people be interested in a short guide?

    • Snargelfargen says:

      I was taught Visual Basic in high school, and the best part of it was when we got to make our own games. I am also pretty terrible at any sort of math, but once you get the handle on the basic concepts, building something is surprisingly easy. I’m still knda proud of the top-down split-screen tank battling game I made, although I never had time to make the hit-detection work quite right.

    • HexagonalBolts says:

      @simoroth

      Absolutely would be interested in that.

    • 3lbFlax says:

      If you want to check out the FlashDevelop / Flixel route then take a look at the Flixel help page:

      http://flixel.org/help.html

      There are several short, single-script examples of basic games. It’s very useful, and combined with the tutorials I think it’s one of the best flying starts you’ll find.

    • Raiyan 1.0 says:

      Guys, how accessible is UnrealScript? I was thinking of messing around with UDK, and the interesting thing I’ve heard is that you don’t need to write complex coding involving physics. For example, writing a projectile script typically involves writing HitWall(), Bounce(), and Touch() function describing what to do when key events happen. And there are tons of tutorials as well. Should jump in without any prior knowledge of programming?

      The reference guide told me to familiarize myself with the basics of JavaScript before trying out UDK, and apparently, as Batolemaeus puts it, JavaScript is useless at learning the basics. I’m having a bit of trepidation here – what do you say?

    • Jibb Smart says:

      C is an ideal starting point because it keeps you relatively close to how a computer actually works and is still relatively simple.

      Even better for RPSers: Learn Lite-C here. It’s free. It comes with a simple “Lite-C” IDE. It’s basically C with a built-in game engine (A8 with some features cut). Go through the tutorials here. It makes it really easy to make your first steps into game programming.

      If you haven’t heard of A8 (or A7, A6, or their other predecessors), Dejobaan uses A7 Pro (Aaaaaa…. and Kick It), and I use A8 Pro for KarBOOM.

      Only for PC.

    • Batolemaeus says:

      I’m saying that anything with clutter is making learning it harder.
      Javascript is comparatively light on clutter, but it still has elements that distract from the very basics.

      I prefer to go the way of teaching the ground work in something with the least distracting things possible. Once you’ve learned how loops, if-clauses and some basic arrays and functions work, you can basically use whatever you like as the workings of these basic tools are pretty universal and you won’t be distracted by more complicated syntax.

      Personally, the first programming experiences didn’t help me at all. Of the 20-30 lines on screen only one or two were mine, the rest were parentheses, method declarations, weird stuff with no explanation but if I accidently modified them, everything went to hell without leaving any clue on how to fix it.
      Then pascal came along and things slowly started to make sense. Now I can do most stuff in just about any language.

    • Ehren says:

      I learned to program in BASIC on my calculator, then on a PC using Visual Basic. Although I now use other languages, it’s a great way to get started.

      If anyone wants to give BASIC a try, I’d recommend Small Basic. There are a lot of sample programs on the site, including games like Tetris.

    • pbl64k says:

      Seriously, folks. If you want to learn how to fight, it doesn’t matter that much which martial arts style you pick. As long as you don’t stumble mindlessly into an evil totalitarian apocalyptic cult camouflaging as one. Fundamentals matter. Cardio, fitness, muscle mass, reflexes.

      If you want to learn game programming, you need to learn programming (if your aspirations go anywhere beyond CLI tic-tac-toe). And it doesn’t really matter that much which programming language you pick. As long as you don’t stumble mindlessly into Befunge or INTERCAL. You need fundamentals. Attention to detail, algorithmic thinking, manipulating abstractions, decomposition. And what you need for that is a good textbook. The best one I know is SICP. It’s pretty darn ancient, it focuses on Scheme which easily qualifies as an esoteric language these days (however, ECMAScript/JavaScript draws a lot of inspiration from Scheme and has been jokingly described as a language with Scheme semantics but fancy C/Java-influenced syntax), it’s utterly alien to gamedev per se as it takes a far more mathematical approach, and digesting it from scratch will probably take a few months of your time (I’m with Euclid here, though – no royal path to computer science).

      Also, it will give you the best damn fundamentals possible if you can gather your strength and chew through it cover to cover.

      It goes to show the student a number of extremely powerful abstractions, teaches what good they are, and effectively prepares you for identifying and juggling abstractions on your own. The rest boils down to implementation details.

    • Pantsman says:

      @HexagonalBolts (and anyone else with an interest in programming games): As a (soon to be) professional programmer with experience in a number of languages, I’d recommend Python in a heartbeat. It’s syntax is dead simple, having a minimum of BS, which makes it easy to read and write, but it’s also immensely powerful. I’d suggest it for anyone wanting to learn to program, whether it’s games or not. And since games are what you’re interested in, here’s a free online book I’ve heard is quite good: http://inventwithpython.com/

      I haven’t used Basic or Pascal at all, so I can’t speak to those (except to say that it’s perhaps telling that I’ve never encountered them), but I will say to not listen to the guy above who suggested C. I love C dearly, and work a lot with it. It’s great when you want to get your hands dirty on the lowest levels of the machine. If you’re interested in learning how a computer really works, it’s great because you need to know that to use C. But most amateur programmers aren’t interested in that. It’s a terrible language to learn with, with a steeper curve than almost anything else. Unless you want to make your own bleeding-edge graphics engine, it’s not going to give you anything other languages don’t, and it’ll cause you a lot more headaches.

      I hope that’s helpful to you. Happy coding!

    • Jibb Smart says:

      I will say to not listen to the guy above who suggested C.

      C is no harder than people make it. It’s how I learned to program.

      Lite-C, in particular, is very easy to get into. Just download it (~100MB) and go through the workshop I linked to a few posts up. It keeps things simple, makes it really easy to get started, but does very little to get in the way of an experienced programmer.

      It also has a very active community with some using the engine’s predecessors as many as 13 years ago.

      Your first program will be about 4 lines of code. You have instant access to 3D. It comes with a simple model editor, but if you look on the forum there’s a great Blender exporter available. And it gives you tremendous creative freedom.

      Python is indeed lovely, but if you want to be making your own games as fast as possible, go with Lite-C.

      From what I’ve seen, newer programmers like to stick with one language and get very good at it before branching out and discovering how similar most languages really are. So start with something you can easily make games with.

    • Kaira- says:

      C# + XNA is a solid choice also, if you don’t mind selling your soul to Microsoft. Loads of tutorials and very easy to learn, hell, at a course we had a ball bouncing randomly all around the screen 5 minutes after booting up Visual Studio.

    • HexagonalBolts says:

      Soooo, you know how I started ‘Ask in a forum where to start and people will just begin to argue about which language you should use.’ ?

      But seriously, thank you all for your suggestions, I’ll have a good look through them after Wednesday when I’ve got tons of time to devote to a project and try to get going, sounds like python is a good choice, would that actually ever be used for a game that you’d, say, play on the web or something though?

    • Chopper says:

      @Bolts
      Mount & Blade is written in Python (well, an in-house variant thereof), so if you fancy seeing real results straight away, do a little modding. Source code is available and lots of help on their forums too.

    • Premium User Badge

      Aninhumer says:

      For what another opinion is worth in this massive thread…
      I definitely agree that jumping straight into game programming is probably a bad idea. I think the most important thing is to get to the point where you have some code that does SOMETHING as soon as possible. Once you’ve written “Hello World”, a lot of the feeling of coding being something arcane and mystical fades. A few more programs later, maybe taking input and doing something conditional, and you start realise that you can really do anything you want, and a lot of it isn’t that hard.
      BASIC is a good place to start, but I’d encourage people to move to something more powerful as soon as they learn the basics. Personally I think Python is an excellent language to learn to program in, because you can use it initially like BASIC and then slowly introduce more and more structure as you get the hang of it.

    • Jibb Smart says:

      I definitely agree that jumping straight into game programming is probably a bad idea. I think the most important thing is to get to the point where you have some code that does SOMETHING as soon as possible. Once you’ve written “Hello World”, a lot of the feeling of coding being something arcane and mystical fades. A few more programs later, maybe taking input and doing something conditional, and you start realise that you can really do anything you want, and a lot of it isn’t that hard.

      I’m afraid I have to disagree with you as someone who went straight into game programming. You just need an engine that accommodates beginners. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but Lite-C, for example, makes learning programming with an orientation towards game development as easy as learning programming just about any other way.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if Unity is also easy to get into.

    • Premium User Badge

      kavika says:

      Kodu looks quite interesting as a “game programming intro”
      http://fuse.microsoft.com/project/kodu.aspx

      Other than that, Python/Pygame is probably the best bet, since it will be simple, and Python is a nice language.

  4. DevilSShadoW says:

    I… dont know what to say.
    Turn it into a 15$ console that plays farmville
    ???
    profit

  5. Inigo says:

    I don’t think anyone’s got the heart to tell him that nobody uses BASIC anymore.

    • Aymes says:

      Not quite true dat

      BlitzMax was born from BlitzBasic and still maintains the BASIC syntax. Plenty of people using that to create games these days just as a f’rinstance.

      Plus, in a non-gaming environment, many people use VBA for MS Excel/Access in a business environment. As well as VB.net.

    • simoroth says:

      Actually a lot of people still do. Its a good lightweight language to teach the fundamentals of programming with.

    • diebroken says:

      Ha! Next you’ll be saying no one uses FORTRAN anymore…

    • Ovno says:

      Basic is still a very valid way of teaching people the basics of programming though….

      And loads of people use visual basic everyday I may add….

    • Spooner says:

      His website says it runs a Ubuntu (Linux) distribution, which I assume would install absolutely any language, and comes with Python installed already. No reason (or suggestion from Braben) at all to use archaic languages for the sake of it…

    • LionsPhil says:

      Its a good lightweight language to teach the fundamentals of programming with.

      This is the sound of hundreds of Computer Scientists damaged by BASIC or who have witnessed those damaged by BASIC wailing and hammering their faces into their keyboards.

      Besides, that particular brain-damage has now been replaced by JAVA in education, which offers new and exciting ways to misteach people and cripple their understanding.

    • Ovno says:

      Fortran is still used by some in science (physics in particular) actually as it is very good at maths hence why it is called the FORmula TRANslator.

    • pbl64k says:

      Bull. Structured BASICs of the ’90s were a vastly different proposition from the 8-bit ROM BASICs of the ’80 (or, Turing forbid, genuine authentic mainframe BASICs of an even earlier era) and were actually reasonably decent introductory languages. Remain so to this day, although wouldn’t be my first (second, third etc.) choice.

    • Dozer says:

      @pbl64k: sorry, we rejected AV. You can only express your views about your first preference.

    • pbl64k says:

      @Dozer, as you have rejected AV, you are not allowed to express your opinion of it.

  6. trjp says:

    erm John

    To plug 2 (or 8 or 16) USB devices into it you would use a hub or hub-cable hybrid…

    Whether someone owns a flashy TV or not does not change whether they see £250+ as worthwhile for a PC – or whether they may be interested in something MUCH cheaper.

    I’m equally confused as to what this has to do with encouraging proper programming BUT what it does show is that tech. companies are only making hardware which fits into certain predefined price/performance categories and that MUCH more is possible..

    • John Walker says:

      Again, if this is being sold as something to be given to school kids, it can’t then require sixteen extra adaptors and wires to be used. It has to be all in one block.

    • sneetch says:

      Simplest solution that I can think of is that the default off-the-shelf package will come with all you need. So it will include a USB keyboard that has a couple of USB ports and a USB mouse.

      Edit: Oh, and one USB hub with an attached cable is not “sixteen extra adaptors and wires” ;)

    • trjp says:

      So he includes 2 sockets and you want to plug in a memory stick or printer or scanner or…

      If you look inside most PCs, their architecture is basically 1 USB which has a hub deployed internally – in this case that would double the size of the machine tho.

      No reason you couldn’t do it – just no good reason TO do it.

      “Included with the device is a keyboard/mouse splitter – to use other devices, simply purchase a hub from just about fucking anywhere”.

    • Donjonson says:

      Surely if it’s going to come with a keyboard and/or mouse then everything would be inside the casing of the keyboard and/or mouse? I don’t see much point in separating it all when these are integral components. Then there’s no need for these usb daisy-chains and leads and shit everywhere. Well, I like the idea of ultra cheap, portable computers, that can be used for basic tasks.. surely we’ll be seeing more of this kind of thing anyway?

    • NaFola says:

      donjonson: It’s designed for school children, who will carry it in their bags to and from school. The bigger you make it, the more cumbersome it is to store and transport.

    • Donjonson says:

      Well, I understand that, but it’s fairly useless without an input device, is it not? So maybe the input devices could be stored in schools or libraries or wherever, and people would just bring their mini PC and plug it in. But this could be done in a cheaper way, people would just bring information and files on a USB stick and plug it into a mini PC in a keyboard at their school… I dunno… like I said, the input device is integral, so it’s either going to have to be carried around or stored in a specific place.

    • NaFola says:

      Yes, I took for granted that schools/libaries/etc would offer the facilities to use it.

      The failing with just carrying around your files, is that you don’t necessarily have the correct environment, on a public computer, to use the files you take. To build and test a program you are developing requires several components to be installed. You just don’t have the access to install them on public machines, never mind the fact you would need to configure it each time.

      Also, if every child has one, it will mean the schools could eventually do away with computers for students, and just supply the input/output devices, which would reduce their costs.

      So you are right that it requires the input/output device, and if the facilities are not there, it will make this device less useful.

    • Donjonson says:

      Ah yeah, I getcha now, in that context I can see it’s use, although I’m not a programmer, I see what you mean about installing different components on every computer you want to use. This is a bit more interesting now that I can see how it might be applied :)

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Also, fancy keyboards (eg, Apple) act as USB hubs with a couple ports. Google indicates you can find such things for no more than €15. That’s probably the nicest solution.

    • steviesteveo says:

      I think if he can sell it for £15 it’s cheap enough that a school child could have their own. That means it’s not running something necessary for domestic tranquility (your big sister’s facebook or your parents’ work email) which further means that you can quite happily tinker with the fundamentals without being disowned if something goes wrong. I grew up in a 80s family where I got to use the family computer but it was categorically not mine.

      I think it’s almost certainly instead going to mostly go to people who want a server in a matchbox, though. That’s why I want one.

  7. simoroth says:

    I think its a grand idea. I totally agree with Braben here (Yes even though he is my employer :p ).

    I did ICT at school and it was, for lack of a better phrase, a total crock of shit. It took me until I was at university and had the resources to buy my own books that I could finally learn to program. The classes revolved around spreadsheets and word processing. I lost 10 marks on my coursework because I outright refused to use “word art” and “clip art” in a document I was making. Seriously its pathetic.

    My teacher had no interest in programming and couldn’t even point me to resources to learn on my own from. Not to mention, my attempts at programming on the school computers got me threatened with suspension because the IT system immediately flagged anyone using .Exe files. I had to tell the deputy head he was an idiot before they dropped the issue.

    I’ve been back at uni recently for my doctorate and have been encouraging everyone I meet to try programming. Sure its not for everyone, but a lot of people have found it to be challenging, fun and ultimately quite empowering.

    • Oneironaut says:

      I just finished my first programming course at uni. It was in introduction to programming in C, and it was probably the best course I’ve ever taken. It wasn’t too hard because the teacher understood that none of us had ever written a line of code before, and it was fun to finally get a little insight into what makes a computer program. I’ll be either taking another course or perhaps getting a book and teaching myself some more.

    • Ovno says:

      Couldn’t agree more mate…

      I hassled my school for ages to teach us some programming but the best they could offer was a really poor flow chart program thing for turning lights on a box on and off, tried to teach myself but didn’t have much luck, due to not even knowing where to start.

      Wasn’t until I was at uni doing physics when we were taught fortran 77 that it finally clicked, in our next years programming lab they taught us c++ and I made a Angband clone using adad rules as my project.

      From there I spent a year teaching myself direct3d and better programming techniques and got myself a job working in the as a video software engineer in the gambling industry =D

      After a fair few years here I’m starting out on my own as an indie games developer and hopefully I’ll be able to focus purely on that in a year or twos time, just need to get the money flowing first.

      I just wish that there had been more support when I was younger, all it takes it just a brief intro sometimes and if you like it you’ll be set for life.

    • frenz0rz says:

      Unfortunately this is the experience most people seem to have had with curriculum IT at schools for at least the last 10 years, myself included. Despite knowing how to build my own PC at the age of 16 (something I would eventually wind up doing a couple of years later), I got a D in GCSE IT because I absolutely did not care about learning to use Microsoft Access (?!), Word or Excel to the degree they were asking. Meanwhile, some smarmy git who knew next to nothing about computing would wind up with an A* for spending weeks creating an intricately detailed Access database about different types of shoe, or something. Indeed, the entire IT curriculum seems to revolve around learning how to use Microsoft programs. The only vaguely positive experience I got from it was learning basic HTML, but even that was self-taught; when creating websites for the school intranet, students were actively encouraged to copy-paste reams of HTML from some website without understanding a bit of it.

      It makes me think; if it wasnt for the utterly apalling state of IT being taught in modern schools, I may well have gained an interest in programming (following on from the hours I used to spend dicking around in Gamemaker, or drawing my own multi-leveled UT2k4 maps in the back of my textbooks) rather than going on to do a joint degree in History and Archaeology. Ah well.

    • Hexanol says:

      I tried to pick up coding a bunch of times but it only gelled when I did an assembler course in college. I think it’s a shame people are pointed to the higher-level languages first these days, because without that bedrock of understanding I would never have been able to make it into the games industry.

    • Consumatopia says:

      I agree that the school should be able to point self-motivated students in the right direction if they happen to have an interest in computer programming, especially considering that today there are so many wonderful toy programming environments to mess around in (http://processing.org/ comes to mind),

      But I don’t really see a need to teach students programming more broadly.

      If you actually want to become a software engineer or computer scientist, the two things you need are an understanding of mathematics and the initiative to start and complete projects on your own. Learning the actual “computer” part of it–the specific programming languages, APIs, protocols, whatever is fairly easy if you understand the fundamentals and can follow through on a task.

      Perhaps we could imagine a world where it’s considered normal for most users to write small scripts or macros to accomplish everyday repetitive tasks. But that isn’t really the world we live in now–I suspect that most professional programmers rely almost entirely on code written by other people to accomplish tasks in their personal life. I’m certainly capable of writing such scripts, but I rarely feel the need to. So whatever it is that prevents everyone from becoming a “hacker”, I don’t think a different educational system is the answer. Maybe we need better programming tools, more suited to ad hoc usage (“scripting” with touch or speech interfaces?), maybe as computers become smarter and capable of meeting us halfway when we’re trying to teach them to do tasks, or maybe social norms could evolve to push ordinary users towards scripting and automation, but I think it’s a mistake to look to classrooms or poorer countries to make these changes first.

    • Ravenger says:

      I did O-Level computer studies (as it was called then) back in the early 80′s on Nascom 2s, BBC Micros and RML 380z machines.

      We were lucky back then in that all the machines had built-in (or at least loadable) BASIC interpreters, and that some element of BASIC programming was built into the course, but even then the course wasn’t really about programming, but about something else entirely. In those days the course was mainly about the history of computing – punched cards, paper tape, etc, and not about the incredibly exciting new developments that microcomputers as they were then known were opening up.

      I got a D grade, which shows how relevant the course was to someone who was really into computers and BASIC programming – in fact my entire career has been with computers on one way or another. It seems like things haven’t changed much for the better since then.

      We were lucky in those days that the early computers were so much simpler than modern machines, which made them easier to learn and tinker with.

      I think this device that David Braben has come up with is a great way to re-capture the methods and enthusiasm of the 8-bit days.

      Interesting side-note – my first program was actually written on optical cards! Around 1977 before computers came into schools we had to write our BASIC programs out longhand, then convert each character into its binary ASCII code. Each line was then transcribed onto 80 column binary optical cards using a soft pencil, one column for each character. The cards were then sent off to a university somewhere, and a week or so later you’d get a sheet of dot-matrix printer paper with ‘?SYNTAX ERROR AT LINE 30′ printed on it.

    • Nesetalis says:

      i didnt get my own computer to use until the mid 90s… and every single computer class i took, was, as all of you have described, terrible wastes of resources.
      Personally I believe every child should be taught to program atleast one language. high level or low level, it doesnt matter, but shortly after learning english, they should learn computer logic. It gives you such a great understanding of our technological world. Even if they never again write a program, just that basic, childhood knowledge would be enough to help them through life.

      I taught myself to program only in the last 4 years… in late highschool i had a single class which gave me permission to write a website for them.. but of course they expected me to use dreamweaver instead of actually typing it out. However that did get me started on web design, which later lead in to Javascript, ASP, PHP, and eventually Python, C, C++.

    • wackozacko says:

      There’s an interesting article that I read a few weeks ago which might contribute a bit to this discussion. Machine Code is for Kids!. I’d have to agree that IT in schools is terrible for the computing industry. I never took it cause it looked so boring, but took an alternative A level offered, Computing, and absolutely loved that. In large because I had a good teacher who himself loved programming. And now I’m doing Computer Science as a degree. I’d love to see this become a little programming environment, packaged for learners with the libraries and documentation kids need to get started. I don’t know if it’ll become a part of any curriculum, but it’d be nice to have something like this on offer for those who are interested in learning to program and don’t know where to start.

  8. Jonathan says:

    Unfortunately, all I can think is “Why is he working on this and not the next Elite, dammit!”

    Also “I’d settle for a new Zarch.”

  9. Batolemaeus says:

    Can’t use it, no HDMI. Why would I have HDMI? I’d love to use this to play around, but HDMI is simply a deal breaker.

    • Luomu says:

      HDMI->DVI adapters are like 4€. Surely you have a spare monitor somewhere :)

    • Pete says:

      I suspect HDMI is on there because the chip it’s built around can output HDMI directly from its pins with no further analogue circuitry required. It’s amazing how much is integrated into these system-on-a-chip devices.

    • JWendin says:

      Looks like it’s using the 5V from HDMI to power the thing (while providing the display output at the same time).

      You seem to forget that he specifically intend for it to be tinkered with. That’s the whole point. I’d wager most families don’t have one computer per person in the house. The family computer usually comes with a “DO NOT TINKER WITH IT”-clause. This device would be perfect to allow my kids to experiment without having to invest in even a modest cost.

      I can’t wait to get my hands on one of these myself to see what the SBC is capable of GPU wise. I wonder if it’s based on the TCC 890x series?

    • Pete says:

      The feature set is a pretty good match for the NVIDIA Tegra. I can’t readily find pricing information for it, but their pitch talks about “$99 mobile internet devices”. Take the screen, keyboard, and battery out of that and I can easily see how you reach £15. Getting composite video out of it would probably add a couple of quid.

  10. diebroken says:

    “I love computers and love using computers, but I’ve absolutely no desire whatsoever to program.”

    - 1 rep. :P

    • Dozer says:

      It’s like loving to travel the world and to fly places in a plane, maybe even to fly the plane – but not to design and build a plane.

      Also, I think there’s two very different realms of game-making: there’s coming up with a good idea for a game, and then there’s the expressing the idea in code. Back in the day I could BUILD adventure games in BASIC like a thirteen-year-old pro but I had absolutely no idea on how to WRITE an interesting adventure game. So it would be a text adventure where you could wander round my house and maybe put the laundry in the washing machine and ride a bike to the bike repair shop to buy a thing for the bike.

  11. pkt-zer0 says:

    I love computers and love using computers, but I’ve absolutely no desire whatsoever to program. It sounds just awful.

    Go play SpaceChem and realize how wrong you are.

  12. Premium User Badge

    yhancik says:

    So it should be operational within twelve months?

  13. Kieron Gillen says:

    I’m a bit in love with Braben for this one.

    KG

    • LionsPhil says:

      I would file this under a Molyneux-esque claim, personally. Small, cheap system-on-a-chip systems are nothing new: the Beagle Board is one example; Gumstix another. Note that the prices are nowhere near as low as £15. Heck, any number of netbook-without-the-screen-or-battery type EeeBox-clones exist which are designed to hang off the back of a TV and hover around the ~£100 mark—for the low-spec versions running Linux, so none of that is a Windows license.

      I’d be more inclined to believe that we’re about to see a new FPSRPG game from Lionhead in which you can talk to the monsters and resolve conflicts through an in-depth, dynamic political peacemaking process.

    • MaXimillion says:

      @LionsPhil: The BeagleBoard is based on OMAP3 IIRC, which has a CPU powerful enough to run 720p video, not to mention the board is far larger and and has more connectors on it.

      And I could get an OMAP3 board for 70€, with the manufacturing costs obviously being lower than that, so I could well see a low-powered usb-stick sized board like this being manufactured for £15 a piece.

  14. Premium User Badge

    sonofsanta says:

    As someone who works with computers in a British secondary school, albeit not as a teacher, I can confirm that the modern ICT curriculum is Not Just A Bit Shit But A Lot Shit, Actually (NJABSBALSA, pronounced “nyabbs ballsa”).

    The curriculum desperately needs splitting into 2 – a core ICT curriculum, that is basically Office GCSE and a few other essentials, and a Computing GCSE, that covers programming, hardware, maintenance etc. and all the actual stuff that someone with an interest in computers would want to learn.

    True story: when I did my GCSEs, they actually barred me from doing GCSE IT as a course because it would be such a waste of my time, covering no new topics whatsoever. Not bragging, just stating how rubbish it all is.

    So if they fix the curriculum, this would be brilliant for the Computing side of the equation. It should probably also be distributed to programmers around the world so they can learn to code intelligently instead of wastefully – the story of how Braben created Elite’s entire universe out of an single, repeatable algorithm because there wasn’t the disk space to store it as flat data is still one of the greatest examples of computing genius I know of.

  15. MrThingy says:

    He’s aged very well…

  16. Anarki says:

    I don’t understand why people are picking apart all the problems with this. 1 USB port -> USB Hub -> Problem solved. Also this is clearly not going to be rolled out for a couple of years by which time nearly all Displays will support HDMI. Looks really exciting to me.

    • HexagonalBolts says:

      You’ve a good point with the HDMI, but the two USB slots I think would make a massive difference in portability – instead of just carrying around a memory stick you’ve got to carry around a memory stick, 3 or 4 wires, a hub, maybe a power cable for that hub thing… A lot of people like us who are experienced in computers love complexity and lots of wires, but the target market of this – people with little experience in computers, will need something that is just ‘stick it in and it works’. It would be so easy to sell. Start saying ‘well you need to buy this… but then you can’t actually use it unless you buy this other thing that you have to carry around as well… making the small size almost pointless…’, I think that goes against the whole ethos of the design and would make it more complicated to sell.

    • Cooper says:

      “Also this is clearly not going to be rolled out for a couple of years by which time nearly all Displays will support HDMI.”

      Unless, of course, you do not upgrade your electronic devices every few years just because they’ve made the plugs shinier. Like, you know, the families Braben is aiming this at?

      CRT TVs are still very, very common. This will need a SCART adaptor to be of any use in the near future.

    • TSA says:

      Specs on the site lists HDMI or composite video. Just get a composite > SCART cable instead of the HDMI one, and you’re good to go.

  17. Premium User Badge

    Diziet Sma says:

    *warning nit picking*

    Isn’t that an HDMI out at one end?

  18. Mr Labbes says:

    I have seen plenty of households where there is no PC (or a really shitty one, which is not really used), but a TV that would definitely have HDMI. Not saying that statistics support this, that I don’t know, but from my very own viewpoint, it seems people irrationally spend lots of money (i.e. in proportion to their income a too large amount) for their TVs.

    • randomnine says:

      You know, a good HDMI TV still costs less than a crap PC.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Just to check… everyone understands why this is true?

      It’s because most people like TV.

      KG

    • Mr Labbes says:

      You’re right, but I see more use in saving money for a PC than saving half the amount for a TV, because a PC is much more useful – and I’m not talking games here, but E-Mail and writing texts in a form most companies will accept (unlike handwritten letters).

      Edit: What I’m trying to say is: I think there are people who have no PC, but an HDMI-caple TV – the question remains whether this device will appeal to them (or their kids).

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      JKjoker: We’re not most people.

      KG

    • steviesteveo says:

      The problem with hating on Big Brother (slightly poor choice for a contemporary example) is that it mistakes your personal likes and dislikes with what “most people” like and dislike.

      I have a friend who doesn’t play video games but has an incredible Sky+ package. That’s just what he chooses to spend his money on.

  19. Moni says:

    This thingie is a great first step, but I want to know how Braben plans on convincing the higher-powers to build a decent curriculum for computing.

    I doubt telling them something logical like software development is a pretty big deal and a powerful economic drive would convince them it’s a good idea.

  20. Raye says:

    Dunno why people are shocked that some people don’t want to learn to code… People’s brains work in different ways. I’m a very visual sort, and to reduce something down to strings of code is very confusing and arcane to me. I don’t even use keyboard shortcuts when playing games if I can avoid it. I much prefer to click on screen buttons, or I quickly become confused, forgetting what key is assigned to which spell or whatever. I have learned HTML and CSS to create websites, but my knowledge is fairly basic, I basically go “i want to do X” and search for a tutorial to show me, and anyone who really knew what they were doing would probably look at the code on my sites with absolute horror, I’m sure it’s the equivelant of building something with duct tape and scraps. Anything more advanced than that is just beyond me, and I rely on third party PHP, Javascript etc. And those are just web based things. I could draw you a real pretty picture with Photoshop, though. :p

    As such, I agree that his assertion that it will lead kids to want to code is a bit unrealistic. But I think the idea of a cheap computer that can be used with a TV is an interesting one.

  21. My2CENTS says:

    Incredible device, hope dirt cheap devices like this one really hit their target into developing countries. I can finally say that a computer game costs more than the computer itself :)

  22. Ginger Yellow says:

    Couldn’t you just pick up a BBC Micro for £15?

    • Dozer says:

      I have an Amstrad CPC in a cupboard (underneath the TV, incidentally).

  23. Richie Shoemaker says:

    I think it’s a lovely idea. Reminds me of ol’ Clive back in the day, trying to get people programming on his cheap-as-chips ZX80/81/82 and ending up fostering gamers instead.

  24. Premium User Badge

    Oozo says:

    “So the idea that every kid in every school would become compelled to start creating their own software is a touch optimistic.”

    It may be, but I do agree that having the most basic of programming skills might become (or already be) an important skill for current or future generations. It’s not so much about being able to beat John Carmack in a typing duell, but more like a general mindest: I am no slave to that computer/program, I can change it according to my needs. It’s not something that is broadly encouraged, though.

    Braben is far from alone with his idea that programming might be an essential skill for kids, though. The idea goes back at least to the early 80s. Check e.g. this pdf or Ian Bogost’s thoughts on the subject …

  25. Acosta says:

    Will it come with Elite IV preinstalled? :(

    Jokes aside, looks a great idea.

  26. jimjames says:

    Wheres my thanks for the tip! I emailed you on Friday about it!

    FORGET IT.

  27. AbyssUK says:

    OK am sure it should be HDMI – out and a USB in connection not the other way around right…can’t believe so many comments and nobody but me noticed…

    Also HDMI is a good choice because it can send audio too so no need for a stereo out plug or anything, HDMI is the same as DVI for video also so you can plug it into a monitor if you so wish.

  28. Salt says:

    A fine gentleman such as John Walker having no desire to program is justification enough for the necessity to improve the teaching of computing.

    Children from the age of around 8 are well placed to understand programming and make real things that work. I’m a poor scholar so can’t offer a link, but I saw a presentation about teaching a class of children to use a simple programming language and several ended up making programs that rivalled commercial software of the time (I think it was in the mid 70s).

    As has been said already, “information technology” in schools now is really “How to work in a modern office”. Typically students are not introduced to actual programming until A-level, and even then only in Computing courses. I was sufficiently nerdy to teach myself BASIC from message boards, and thankfully my teachers were smart enough to allow me to program a database in BASIC when we were meant to be doing the “Making a relational database in Office” coursework.

    If I’d not happened upon a supportive message board to help me learn to program at a far younger age and had just followed the education system’s prescribed route for programming, I’d likely now be one of the 90% of programmers who can’t program.

    A small computer that belongs to the child and acts as a safe sandbox is an extremely important tool for learning to program. Imagine the not at all tech-savvy parent of a child who want to [re]program the computer. That doesn’t sound safe! That’s going to wreck the expensive machine they rely on for important stuff like online banking. Hopefully they’d realise that the kid plugging in their £15 computer to the same keyboard and monitor would be a risk-free activity.

    In summary: The vast majority of children are not taught to program. Imagine if children were taught how to read, but not write. Computers are now central to the operation of our world, and the majority of people not really understanding how they work is a tragic and possibly dangerous knowledge gap.

    Anything that helps is good news, and I hope he ships a copy of Elite on that thing.

  29. scut says:

    I think he’s using HDMI because it’s A) compact, and B) a current / next gen standard that crosses between a lot of consumer devices (televisions, laptops, monitors, tablets etc.). I think what people need to focus on is that this has been intentionally designed to be as simple to grok as possible, so that once someone gets the hang of it they will feel more comfortable expanding its complexity. It seems a bit like an Arduino approach to the PC, and I can’t see how that can do any harm.

  30. sneetch says:

    Just on what he said at the end of the video on the number of computer science applicants halving in the early 2000s: I think it had far more to do with the dot-com/high-tech bubble bursting than the contents of ICT courses (we saw the same thing here here in Ireland and we don’t have ICT).

  31. ukpanik says:

    Sod the kids, us oldies want a new Elite.

  32. NaFola says:

    I saw this a couple of days ago and thought it was a fantastic idea. When I was growing up, I was lucky enough to have an Amstrad CPC 464 on which my programming experience started. When it came time to get a PC though, I had to save up for a long time before I could afford one. The point is that if I hadn’t had the Amstrad to begin with, I don’t know whether I would have even known about programming, and therefore wouldn’t have wanted to get the PC. Every child being given a device like this at schools will give maximum exposure to the potential available, giving kids the chance to find out if it’s something they want to explore. Admittedly, it would also require the curriculum to cater to it as well to some extent. I also wonder about the administration of it (installing and maintaining the operating system and programs etc), but the potential it offers to all children is what really appeals to me.

  33. Dana says:

    But will it blend ?

  34. bonjovi says:

    I think he’s using the foundation as an excuse and source of funding.

  35. Premium User Badge

    piphil says:

    i) It doesn’t need another USB port – “Universal Serial Bus” – it’s designed specifically for devices to be daisychained. There’s no reason you can’t buy a keyboard with an inbuilt USB port for the mouse (although I’ll admit these have gone out of fashion lately). Hell, it may even support a bluetooth or wireless dongle, that would allow connection to all sorts of things.
    ii) HMDI-to-DVI convertor = not a lot of extra money or fuss.
    iii) <a
    href="http://www.pcpro.co.uk/news/interviews/367183/q-a-can-a-15-computer-rekindle-the-uk-tech-industry/2&quot; title="According to a trustee of the charity" (PC Pro), the device “has a 3D graphics performance well in excess of a PlayStation 2″, which could be interesting….

  36. Soon says:

    That’s what I was thinking. It seems to be compact just for the sake of it. May as well make everything part of a cheap keyboard and you have more room for extra ports (and a convenient keyboard, duh).

  37. magnus says:

    Is also making a Cream Pi for people who like to download Clown-Porn?

  38. NaFola says:

    I see a few very good reasons for it being compact, which include:

    Easy to transport
    Easy to replace individual components (in event of failure, breakage, etc)
    Less incentive for theft of the device

    This does of course assume that schools, libraries, etc, will offer facilities to plug the device into. I believe this should be the case, because in theory, it spreads the TCO across several entities, reducing the cost per individual.

  39. VoidNull says:

    That’s great David. Now where the hell is Elite 4? Its been 16 years already.

    • rockpaper rocket propelled grenade says:

      For real. Hopefully by 2020 we will get our elite IV.

  40. Radiant says:

    I did Computer Science.

    They taught me Ada.

    • Radiant says:

      ADA.

      fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu

    • nil says:

      Ada: running the Pentagon’s Scary Flying Death Machines since 1980.

  41. manveruppd says:

    The thing’s intended more to help kids learn to code,but I’m sure the first things that will be made to work on it are the ARM ports of MAME and SCUMMVM! :p

  42. something says:

    I’m thinking ultra cheap set-top PC. I’m also thinking it’ll need a super light OS – maybe Android. Hey – I can read my own mind!

  43. rockpaper rocket propelled grenade says:

    That is truly amazing but will it run Elite IV?

    • MrThingy says:

      I should think so!

      After all, you only need the lightest of CPUs to run vaporware. :P

  44. GCU Speak Softly says:

    Also, while it’s a rather lovely idea that such an item would open up access to the internet for poorer families, that’s not exactly practical. I’d suggest that if a family were unable to afford a £200 PC that could perform similar tasks, then they’re unlikely to have a modern TV with HDMI input, attached to a cable or satellite network capable of providing internet access.

    I’d suggest that a massive proportion of families that don’t have a PC in the home will have a big HD telly with a Sky box attached to it. A lot of ‘poorer’ families had both of these things long before I did, for example.

  45. ShezaEU says:

    HDMI is a small connection, that’s why. Have you seen VGA cables? Huge! Sure, you could use mini DP but people are more likely to have HDMI enabled TV.

    I think this is absolutely fantastic. I’m studying ICT at GCSE level and it’s a total joke. I can write very useful batch files in under a minute that are more impressive than the multi-coloured leaflet they want me to design. I have to get feedback on the position of freakin’ text boxes in MS Publisher. The project brief booklets have errors in them so even my “I went on an ICT teacher training course for the lulz” teacher can’t even give a definitive explanation of what to do.

    We have dual core HP PC’s and all we are doing with them is Office work. We have the full ADobe suite installed and we don’t touch it.

  46. Elos says:

    This thing is so going to be my next Irssi server

  47. Premium User Badge

    Carra says:

    Even for programming a mouse is a must have for most people.

    And you don’t like programming? Heretic!

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Naahh. Spend a while with Linux, using Vim (or *shudder* Emacs), the shell, and GNU screen. If you need a mouse to write code, you’re just using crappy tools and/or haven’t memorized all the keyboard commands yet. The mouse is an annoying context switch.

    • Nesetalis says:

      i only vaguely know how to use vim… i’m mostly a windows programmer.. but even I feel the mouse is more of an annoyance, only good for first person shooters, and web browsing. (I’m still waiting for some one to come up with a better method of browsing the web with a keyboard… tabbing between each individual link is down right awful)

      any one who says they need a mouse, not only is using the wrong tools and doesnt know the shortcuts… but also is drastically harming their productivity. It is a clumsy input tool that should have been replaced a decade or two ago by tablets. :| and I don’t mean touchpads.

    • MD says:

      He said ‘for most people’, though. Forcing kids to learn completely mouseless computer use is just throwing an unnecessary roadblock ahead of teaching them to program. Even if you think mouseless computing is more efficient, it’s not really a core skill.

  48. geldonyetich says:

    A USB-Powered Computer.

    So that anyone who has access to a computer USB port can now have access to a computer.

    I kid. A USB hub would probably do the trick.

  49. Premium User Badge

    Chaz says:

    If you can use it to browse porn and plug in a web cam to expose yourself to random people you’ve never met before, then it should do OK.

  50. NaFola says:

    accidental post..