UK public-service broadcaster the BBC has offered a detailed look at the Micro Bit -- a new microcomputer that will be doled out to roughly a million kids in the UK for free, in a bid to teach a new generation about programming.
As technology becomes more intuitive and we get further removed from the lines of code that power our favourite gadgets, several organisations are pushing to keep kids interested in programming through the use of microcomputers -- simple, cheap devices that can be adapted to all manner of projects. Of these flexible gadgets, the Raspberry Pi, which launched in 2012, has made the biggest impact to date, and now the BBC hopes its own microcomputer can set the example for what education in programming at a young age can accomplish.
The Micro Bit will arrive in schools in October, with a free device offered to every child in the Year Seven age bracket, which means kids around 11-12 years old. The project is a collaboration between the BBC and 29 partners including Microsoft, who built the Micro Bit's browser-based programming interface.
The Micro Bit itself measures a mere 4 by 5cm (1.6 by 2 inches), but it packs a lot of interactive elements into its tiny frame, including a grid of 25 LEDs that can be quickly programmed to display writing. There are also two programmable buttons, and inside there's a built-in accelerometer and a compass. The Micro Bit communicates with other sensors and devices via five input/output rings, or wirelessly over Bluetooth.
Design-wise, the rounded shape, cute logo and prominent buttons show a device that was clearly built to be played with -- an interactivity the BBC hopes will give its new toy more instant appeal than the more static Raspberry Pi.
"What we wanted to do was give kids an easy start, something that in a few minutes, with a few lines of code, puts a huge smile on their faces," enthused Howard Baker, editor of innovations at BBC Learning. "What we are finding is if you throw kids in the deep end and go, 'Here's a Raspberry Pi, here's an Arduino,' it's a bit, 'I'm not sure what to do next.' So it's that concept of easy, small steps."
For now, the Micro Bit is only going out to UK children in Year Seven, but the BBC today said it would be setting up a not-for-profit organisation to license the technology, with a view to getting it on general sale around the world.
A BBC Micro for the Internet of Things generation
Although the BBC is best known for its TV and radio programmes, the broadcaster does have a history of pushing hardware into the world of education. Most tech-savvy Brits over a certain age will remember the BBC Micro, which back in the 80s gave swathes of UK kids an early introduction to programming. That's something that today's tech companies, including British chip-maker ARM (a Micro Bit partner), are directly benefiting from.
"More than half of our executive team learned to code on the BBC Micro," ARM's director of emerging technologies Gary Atkinson said. "There is a legacy there that, when we were approached by the BBC to be part of that, of course we wanted to do it."
The broadcaster says it's hoping to capture the spirit of that iconic tech but with more of a focus on the Internet of Things, a term that describes all the tech in our lives, from handheld devices to white goods, becoming interconnected. This is widely expected to be one of the big technological shifts of the near future.
"There is a new revolution, it's about smart objects, it's about the Internet, a smart world, an always-on world," Baker says. "It's about prompting kids to not be consumers of somebody else's world, but to be the creators of their world, of that next world."