Preview the upcoming Maynard desktop

Some of you will be aware that we’ve been working on a new, more responsive and more modern desktop experience for the Raspberry Pi. We thought you might like an update on where we are with the project.

The chip at the heart of the Raspberry Pi, BCM2835, contains an extremely powerful and flexible hardware video scaler (HVS), which can be used to assemble a stack of windows on the fly for output to the screen. In many ways the HVS resembles the sprite engines you may remember from 8- and 16-bit computers and games consoles from the Commodore 64 onward, with each window treated as a separate translated and scaled “sprite” on top of a fixed background.

The Wayland compositor API gives us a way to present the HVS to applications in a standards-based way. Over the last year we’ve been working with Collabora to implement a custom backend for the Weston reference compositor which uses the HVS to assemble the display. Last year we shipped a technology demonstration of this, and we’ve been working hard since then to improve its stability and performance.

The “missing piece” required before we can consider shipping a Wayland desktop as standard on the Pi is a graphical shell. This is the component that adds task launching and task switching on top of the raw compositor service provided by Wayland/Weston. The LXDE shell we ship with X on the Pi doesn’t support Wayland, while those shells that do (such as GNOME) are too heavyweight to run well on the Pi. We’ve therefore been working with Collabora since the start of the year to develop a lightweight Wayland shell, which we’ve christened Maynard (maintaining the tradition of New England placenames). While it’s some distance from being ready for the prime time, we though we’d share a preview so you can see where we’re going.

Packages for Raspbian are available (this is a work in progress, so you won’t be able to replace your regular Raspbian desktop with this for general use just yet, and you’ll find that some features are slow, and others are missing). Collabra have made a Wiki page with compilation instructions available: and there’s a Git repository you can have a poke around in too.

Mudra: a Braille dicta-teacher

Sanskriti Dawle and Aman Srivastav are second-year students at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science in Goa. After a Raspberry Pi workshop they decided they wanted to do something more meaningful than just flash LEDs on and off, and set this month’s PyCon in Montreal as their deadline.

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Aman Srivastav and Sanskriti Dawle

They ended up producing something really special. Mudra means “sign” in Sanskrit: the Raspberry Pi-based device is a learning tool for visually impaired people, which teaches Braille by translating speech to Braille symbols. Braille literacy among blind people is poor even in the developed world: in India, it’s extremely low, and braille teachers are very, very few. So automating the teaching process – especially in an open and inexpensive way like this – is invaluable.

In its learning mode, Mudra uses Google’s speech API to translate single letters and numbers into Braille, so learners can go at their own speed. Exam modes and auto modes are also available. This whole video is well worth your time, but if you’re anxious to see the device in action, fast-forward to 1:30.

Sanskriti and Aman say:

Mudra is an excellent example of what even programming newbies can achieve using Python. It is built on a Raspi to make it as out-of-the-box as possible. We have close to zero coding experience, yet Python has empowered us enough to make a social impact with Mudra, the braille dicta-teacher, which just might be the future of Braille instruction and learning.

We think Mudra’s a real achievement, and a great example of clean and simple ideas which can have exceptional impact. You can see the Mudra repository on GitHub if you’d like a nose around how things work; we’re hoping that Sanskriti and Aman are able to productise their idea and make it widely available to people all over the world.

Books, the digitising and text-to-speechifying thereof

A couple of books projects for you today. One is simple, practical and of great use to the visually-impaired. The other is over-complicated, and a little bit nuts; nonetheless, we think it’s rather wonderful; and actually kind of useful if you’ve got a lot of patience.

We’ll start with the simple and practical one first: Kolibre is a Finnish non-profit making open-source audiobook software so you can build a reader with very simple controls. This is Vadelma, an internet-enabled audio e-reader. It’s very easy to put together at home with a Raspberry Pi: you can find full instructions and discussion of the project at Kolibre’s website.

The overriding problem with automated audio e-readers is always the quality of the text-to-speech voice, and it’s the reason that books recorded with real, live actors reading them are currently so much more popular; but those are expensive, and it’s likely we’ll see innovations in text-to-speech as natural language processing research progresses (its challenging: people have been hammering away at this problem for half a century), and as this stuff becomes easier to automate and more widespread.

How easy is automation? Well, the good people at Dexter Industries decided that what the Pi community (which, you’ll have noticed, has a distinct crossover with the LEGO community) really needed was a  robot that could use optical character recognition (OCR) to digitise the text of a book, Google Books style. They got that up and running with a Pi and a camera module, using the text on a Kindle as proof of concept pretty quickly.

But if you’re that far along, why stop there? The Dexter team went on to add Lego features, until they ended up with a robot capable of wrangling real paper books, down to turning pages with one of those rubber wheels when the device has finished scanning the current text.

So there you have it: a Google Books project you can make at home, and a machine you can make to read the books to you when you’re done. If you want to read more about what Dexter Industries did, they’ve made a comprehensive writeup available at Makezine. Let us know how you get on if you decide to reduce your own library to bits.

MagPi issue 22

I’m about two weeks late to the party on this one – massive apologies to all at The MagPi. It’s been a bit busy around here so far this month. Right now, Picademy’s underway in the office space we’ve got set up as a classroom, and 24 teachers are busy making blooping noises with Sonic Pi while Clive booms at them in Teachervoice. It’s distracting but curiously enjoyable.

Alongside the preparation for Picademy, this month we’ve seen the launch of this new website, and the announcement about the new Compute Module. While all this was going on, the April edition of The MagPi came out, and I didn’t notice because I was too busy glueing Raspberry Pi logos on sticks and sending boxes of jam to Johnny Ball (true story).

MagPi April 14

 As usual, The MagPi is full of wonderful things like internet-enabled garage doors, night lights that repel under-bed goblins, reviews, competitions, tutorials and much more. My favourite article this month discusses a solar cell (this month’s cover star) that tracks the sun to provide 140% more energy than a static cell. Go and read it online for free: you can also order a printed copy for your personal library or for your school. Thanks MagPi folks – I promise to be more timely about letting people know about next month’s issue!

BitScope Micro

We met the folks from BitScope some months ago to talk about their plans for a miniature scope especially for the Raspberry Pi. They’ve just launched the product we discussed today, and our socks have been comprehensively knocked off by it; the engineers who sit behind me think this is one of the most exciting Raspberry Pi add-ons they’ve seen so far.

bitscope

This is the BitScope Micro, built especially for the Raspberry Pi. It turns your Pi into a dual channel digital oscilloscope, a multi-channel logic analyser, a waveform and clock generator and a spectrum analyser; it comes bundled with BitScope’s full suite of software (well worth a look if you’re even slightly interested – this thing has features coming out of the wazoo), and it’s probably the cheapest digital scope we’ve ever seen, coming in at USD $95 if you buy in volume, and $145 at one-off retail. You can read much more at BitScope’s website.

sampleoutput

Sample output

moresampleoutput

More sample output

We think that’s an incredibly good deal – for the same analogue bandwidth in a bench scope you’re looking at an instrument that’s many, many times the price, even at retail.

The BitScope Micro comes bundled with ten signal clips and a USB cable.

The BitScope Micro comes bundled with ten signal clips and a USB cable.

It’s exciting for us to see proper scientific instrumentation coming to the Pi; we’re looking forward to seeing what the community does with tools like the BitScope Micro. Give us your ideas in the comments.

 

New how-to animation – special guest star!

We’ve just taken delivery of another video from the lovely guys at Saladhouse Animation. This one’s for the new Quick Start page, to help out all those beginners who have asked which cables go where, and what they do.

UK readers over 30 or so might recognise the voice of our animated presenter.

Massive thanks, as always, to Sam Alder and Scott Lockhart at Saladhouse, who we love working with; they’re some of our favourite people. But the biggest thanks of all has to go to my childhood hero (he’s also the childhood hero of all the actual grown-ups in the office) – without this guy’s influence when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have ended up loving science, and I wouldn’t have ended up working on Raspberry Pi. Here he is at the recording session with Sam (mouth) and Scott (tall):

samscottjohnny

That’s the LEGENDARY Johnny Ball. Johnny donated his time and his voice talent to the Raspberry Pi Foundation, and we couldn’t be more grateful: Johnny, please watch out for the postman next week, ‘cos we’re sending  you a present to say thanks.

Meet Jasper: open-source voice computing

Meet Jasper. He’s like Siri, but much better, in that it’s open-source and completely customisable. All you need to set up your own is a microphone, a speaker, and a Raspberry Pi.

Jasper already comes with modules to deal with things like time, weather, Gmail, playing your Spotify music, news (and what’s on Hacker News)…and knock knock jokes. You can build your own modules to add more functionality. We’re really impressed by how well-documented Jasper is; new developers should be able to get to grips with building on the platform very easily, and we’re looking forward to watching what you guys get up to with it.

Easy as Pi Piano

I’m on the fence about whether or not this is an effective way to learn how to play the piano: but it’s definitely an effective way to learn about electronics, Python, servo motors, and why lasers are cool. Shane Snipe and his dad took about 50 hours to put this project together – astonishingly, neither of them had ever written any Python before they started the project.

Over at YouTube, Shane says:

My dad and I made the Easy as Pi Piano system to make learning chords faster and easier. This project took about 50 hours to complete due to the fact that we were new to the Python programming language. The Easy as Pi Piano system functions as a piano teacher. Learn to play the chords to your favorite song! The servo motor lasers show you which keys to play. Slow it down or speed it up with the scale. On the monitor, you will see the finger placements, the current chord, and the lyrics to the whole song. We hope that our hard work makes learning how to play piano easy as pie.

Thanks Shane, and thanks Dad!

Raspberry Pi Compute Module: new product!

As regular readers will know, it’s been a busy time here at Pi Towers recently with the launch of our new website, free educational materials and £1m education fund.

On the engineering side of things we’ve also been very busy over the past year, and not to be outdone by the education team, we are ready to take the wraps off something special, this time aimed at business and industrial users.

What's this little thing? Read on to find out.

What’s this little thing? Read on to find out.

From humble beginnings, the Raspberry Pi platform has grown and matured: the software is now full-featured and stable, and is still constantly improving thanks to the continuing hard work of our heroic community of volunteers; as well as targeted injections of funding to solve some specific issues. The Pi, and the Broadcom BCM2835 SoC at its heart, are also steadily becoming more open.

We love hearing about what users are doing with their Raspberry Pis, and are constantly amazed at the range of projects, as well as the inventiveness and creativeness of the community. We are also aware that there are a very significant number of users out there who are embedding the Raspberry Pi into systems and even commercial products. We think there needs to be a better way to allow people to get their hands on this great technology in a more flexible form factor, but still keep things at a sensible price.

Like proud parents, we want to free the core technology of the Raspberry Pi to go forth and become an integral part of new and exciting products and devices, and so today we are announcing the forthcoming Raspberry Pi Compute Module.

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Compute Module on the left. What does it do? Read on to find out.

The compute module contains the guts of a Raspberry Pi (the BCM2835 processor and 512Mbyte of RAM) as well as a 4Gbyte eMMC Flash device (which is the equivalent of the SD card in the Pi). This is all integrated on to a small 67.6x30mm board which fits into a standard DDR2 SODIMM connector (the same type of connector as used for laptop memory*). The Flash memory is connected directly to the processor on the board, but the remaining processor interfaces are available to the user via the connector pins. You get the full flexibility of the BCM2835 SoC (which means that many more GPIOs and interfaces are available as compared to the Raspberry Pi), and designing the module into a custom system should be relatively straightforward as we’ve put all the tricky bits onto the module itself.

So what you are seeing here is a Raspberry Pi shrunk down to fit on a SODIMM with onboard memory, whose connectors you can customise for your own needs.

The Compute Module is primarily designed for those who are going to create their own PCB. However, we are also launching something called the Compute Module IO Board to help designers get started.

Empty IO board on the left: Compute Module snapped into place on the right.

Empty IO Board on the left: Compute Module snapped into place on the right.

The Compute Module IO Board is a simple, open-source breakout board that you can plug a Compute Module into. It provides the necessary power to the module, and gives you the ability to program the module’s Flash memory, access the processor interfaces in a slightly more friendly fashion (pin headers and flexi connectors, much like the Pi) and provides the necessary HDMI and USB connectors so that you have an entire system that can boot Raspbian (or the OS of your choice). This board provides both a starting template for those who want to design with the Compute Module, and a quick way to start experimenting with the hardware and building and testing a system before going to the expense of fabricating a custom board.

IO Board

IO Board

Initially, the Compute Module and IO Board will be available to buy together as the Raspberry Pi Compute Module Development Kit.

These kits will be available from RS and element14 some time in June. Shortly after that the Compute Module will be available to buy separately, with a unit cost of around $30 in batches of 100; you will also be able to buy them individually, but the price will be slightly higher. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a charity, and as with everything we make here, all profits are pushed straight back into educating kids in computing.

I’m sure people will be keen to get their design process started; initially we are releasing just the schematics for both the Compute Module and IO Board, but we will be adding plenty more documentation over the coming days and weeks.

Happy creating!

*But don’t go plugging the Compute Module into your laptop – the pins assignments aren’t even remotely the same!

PA Consulting Raspberry Pi Competition

The PA Raspberry Pi competition challenges young people to use the Raspberry Pi to make the world a better place. Last year I helped judge the competition and was amazed by the creativity and innovation of the entries (the excellent AirPi was one of last year’s winners). This year’s event was held in the Science Museum, and I went along to judge the Year 4-6 and Year 7-11 categories, and to run some workshops along the way.

The Sonic Pi workshops were fantastic—they almost ran themselves, with the students continually trying out new things in quest to make the best music or silliest sounds (the exploding farmyard was a particular favourite). I’ve said it before, but Sonic Pi is genius.

In the afternoon I joined my fellow judges: Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s technology correspondent, and Claire Sutcliffe, co-founder of Code Club. We spent 15 minutes talking to each of the seven teams.  The winning projects had to have the potential to benefit the world in some way and we were also looking for things like innovation, creativity and originality. What really stood out was the energy of the teams — they all talked passionately and knowledgeably about their projects and how they had used the Raspberry Pi to solve real world problems.

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St Mary’s CE Primary, with Pi ‘n’ Mighty, their recycling robot

The year 4-6 category was won by St Mary’s CE Primary School with their recycling robot Pi ‘n’ Mighty. The robot scans packaging barcodes and then tells you if it can be recycled and which bin to put it in. The team was bursting with energy and falling over themselves to explain how they’d made it and what it did. I’d love to see a Pi ‘n’ Mighty in every school canteen, encouraging recycling and helping children learn about the topic. And it looks fantastic, exactly how a robot should look!

plantpi

Frome Community College won the year 7-11 category prize with their prodigious Plant Pi, a system to care for plants and monitor their environment. The team had covered every aspect including hardware and web monitoring, and they had even created an app. It really is a brilliantly designed and engineered solution that already has the makings of a commercial product. The project is open source and includes code, instructions, parts list and documentation.

It was a great day and it was a real pleasure to speak to the finalists and to see young people doing remarkable and useful things with the Raspberry Pi. If I could bottle the innovation, enthusiasm, creativity and technical skills in that room then I would have a Phial of Awesome +10. (I would carry it around with me in a belt holster and open it for the occasional sniff when feeling uninspired.) Best of all, I know that we’ll be seeing some of these finalists again: skills like computational thinking stay with you for life and will serve these kids in whatever they do in the future.