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David Braben Making A USB PC For £15?

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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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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