There’s been a lot written about the Raspberry Pi, a small single-board computer with I/O pins on the circuit board, and a small price tag (£25 or so). At the time of writing, it’s not yet available to buy, but there’s been a lot of interest in the pre-production versions and the promise of an imminent launch.
The Raspberry Pi seems to be different things to different people; the creators see it as a way to give kids the opportunity to tinker with computers without restriction, neither those imposed by parents who don’t want the headache of re-installing a trashed machine, nor those resulting from operating system vendors who add layer upon layer of abstraction to the point that the software we write is far removed from the hardware that it runs on.
For me, the most exciting aspect of the Raspberry Pi is the fact that it exposes 8 GPIO pins, I2C, SPI, UART, and interrupts. In short, lots of methods of input and output of digital signals to and from the board.
This means that software running on the Raspberry Pi can communicate with a vast number of pre-existing chips and integrated circuit modules, such as temperature sensors, ultrasound distance estimators, accelerometers, digital compass sensors – the list goes on.
It also means that the software can send signals to external peripherals – switching a relay, or a motor driver, driving an LCD display, or broadcasting data via a long-range RF module, for example.
Of course, microcontrollers have offered all this for years, and ever decreasing costs for development tools have made them increasingly accessible to hackers, and hobbyists, but they are comparatively limited devices in terms of memory, storage, programming, and debugging, and there’s a steep learning curve before you get any significant rewards.
The Raspberry Pi promises to address these issues, offering the advantages of a relatively powerful computer, along with the interfacing abilities of a microcontroller. I expect we’ll see growth in new add-on modules as software hackers start to move more towards hardware.
As the world and her dog are churning out yet more useless ‘apps’, forever reinventing the wheel trying to gain a few pence in banner-ad revenue, the truly inventive and creative people are moving on to pastures new… hence the Raspberry Pi.