Homemade Pi and Bite-Sized Chips

WEEKEND can't wait for the day when microchips replace our brains.

When I was a kid, my aunt gave me a book of science fair project ideas. The book was old — published no later than 1980 or so — and detailed everything from cloning plants (one of the easier ones) to building robotic laser cutters. Needless to say, I never did any of the projects. I never made it past the list of chemicals or industrial machines, never approached a university physicist for lab time, never even read all of the instructions for a project without getting overwhelmed halfway through and quickly picking up a Hardy Boys book instead.

It seems like the days of tinkering ended when our parents went to college. People stopped taking apart televisions to see how they work or building their own ham radios. Today, pretty much everything we own comes pre-packaged, pre-programmed. The really adventurous among us use Linux, and even that’s not the Wild West it once was.

But a new trend is emerging amongst computer types — and people who write about trends amongst computer types for collegiate newspapers every other week. Computer geeks are once again starting to tinker.

Enter the Raspberry Pi. (Note the tasty nomenclature pun.) The Raspberry Pi, started last year by the aptly named Raspberry Pi Foundation, is a computer designed for education and sold for only $25. That’s right. Around eight times cheaper than the famous cheap laptops sold by the One Laptop Per Child project. The Raspberry Pi, with its reasonable processor and surprisingly decent graphics card, is a fully functioning computer, though it should be noted that in the computer world this criteria means only that it has the capability to do some computing; a monitor (or TV), keyboard, mouse, case, Ethernet cable, SD card (those little memory cards that go into your camera, which are the basis for the computer’s memory) and power supply are all up to you to provide.

Still, the Raspberry Pi, due to being a cheap and easy-to-customize chip about the size of a credit card, has become the darling of the DIY geek community and served as the backbone for projects ranging from retro arcade machines and music and video players to customized coffee machines and robot controllers. The director of the Raspberry Pi Foundation even claims that some enterprising techies plan to launch the cheap computer into space, the rationale being that it might be a lot better to put hundreds of cheap computers on a satellite and see how many survive the harsh environment than to have one expensive, custom-designed computer and hope it doesn’t get fried in a solar flare.

But the Raspberry Pi’s got company in the cheap-computer-that-fits-in-an-Altoids-tin market. The $99 Parallella, which finished its Kickstarter fundraising campaign at the end of October, markets itself less as an educational/tinkering tool and more as a powerful parallel computer for both everyday use and scientific computing. The Parallella takes advantage of using many cores to perform similar computations simultaneously — a practice known as parallel processing — which allows the Parallella to crunch numbers at 45 GHz, according to its creator, or roughly 20 times the speed of my pretty decent Macbook Pro. For, ahem, $99.

Still, these computers are hardly the first to promote tinkering. Arduino is a microcontroller (basically a very small computer) created in 2005 and designed to easily connect to hardware like sensors and motors. It can be controlled with a simple programming language, resulting in projects like a homemade self-balancing Segway-esque robot, a robotic tattoo gun (that tattoos a random religious symbol onto the lucky volunteer’s arm), a swimming robo-snake and the laser harp ­— an instrument composed only of laser beams, which makes noise when you block the beams with your hands to “pluck” the harp.

And before Arduino was LEGO Mindstorms, the robotic branch of the popular kids’ toy brand, which turned building and programming robots into little more than snapping pieces together and drawing flowcharts on a computer screen. LEGO Mindstorms has become, in the last 10 years or so, the easy and inexpensive tool of choice for amateur robotics tinkerers around the world. Scientists at Cambridge University are even using LEGO robots to help aid in their research creating samples of bone.

This new opening up of activities once reserved for labs and factories marks a new shift in creative-scientific pursuits. People can build robots. They can attach wires and sensors to their computers that live in Altoids tins. We are finally back to tinkering.

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