I’ve been looking for an excuse to do a post about the Raspberry Pi for quite a while. Not only is it apparently an unwritten law that everyone who writes a tech-related blog has to do a Pi post at some point, but it really is a cool little toy. My excuse is a couple of significant software releases from the Raspberry Pi Foundation: a new tool called “NOOBS” to simplify setting up your new toy, and an update to the Raspberry Pi’s optimized Linux distribution adding support for the new camera.

The background for anyone who hasn’t previously encountered it: The Raspberry Pi (fondly referred to as the “RasPi”) is a tiny computer, roughly the size of a credit card. It’s far from a high-powered competitor to your desktop, and in fact, it’s probably not even as muscular as your cellphone. What it does have, though, is a full assortment of ports (USB, network, SD, audio, and video), dedicated hardware for video decompression, a very active community of users, and a $35 price tag.

The RasPi was designed as a highly-affordable computer for the education market, something that could engage the imagination of the current generation of school-age children in the same way that the Commodore 64, Atari 400, BBC Micro, and similar easily-hackable machines did for earlier generations. The idea was to design a computer that could be used for more than just playing games – easy to learn to program on, easy to experiment with connecting to external hardware, and cheap enough that schools could afford to buy them in large numbers, even in the wake of the global recession.

The designers succeeded far beyond their dreams. Not only is the RasPi selling well in to schools, but it’s also being snapped up for a wide variety of other uses as well (I’ll come back to this in a moment.)

One of the most interesting ideas that went into the RasPi’s design was to not make it available with a case. When you buy a Pi, you get a bare circuit board. The idea was that the first project a class could undertake would be to design and build cases for their RasPia, meaning that every class – and indeed, every student – would have something unique. Seems like a great way to get them engaged from Day One.

RasPiBeing the lazy sort that I am, I purchased an aftermarket case for my own RasPi, seen here in its current role as media center for the bedroom TV. The nickel is not an essential component in operation, but that same unwritten law I mentioned earlier requires it to give a sense of scale.

A recent discussion on Reddit about non-educational uses for the RasPi proved rather more educational than many might have expected. In addition to the many who reported using it as a low-cost VPN to evade Chinese censorship, the controller for an Internet-controlled cat feeder, or home automation controller, there were also more creative uses. One person is using it as the controller for a prosthetic knee. Quite a few have attached cameras and launched them in rockets and balloons to take high-altitude photos. Another is using one to run a two-meter sailboat (wait until he refines it enough to enter the America’s Cup. Larry Ellison will plotz.)

And then there’s this gentleman, who has, it seems, come up with the ultimate toy for the bondage community.* No word on whether he plans to commercialize his creation.

* Questionable Content fans: is this the first step in the road that will lead to Pintsize?

Of course, there were also a large number of people who reported using their RasPis as doorstops, paperweights, and dust-catchers. No accounting for tastes, I suppose.

Oh, and as to the original purpose of the Raspberry Pi? I can’t find any numbers on how many RasPis have been sold to educational groups, but the news archives on the Foundation’s website are full of spectacular work done by children as young as five years old (although it must be admitted that most of the ones that young need help with soldering) as well as educational uses in low-income and physically isolated areas around the world.

Will the Raspberry Pi save the world? Seems unlikely. But it’s already made an improvement entirely out of proportion to its size.

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