Micro:bit — BBC Gets A Million Kids Into Embedded Dev

In the Early 1980s, the BBC launched a project to teach computer literacy to a generation of British schoolchildren. This project resulted in the BBC Micro, a very capable home computer that showed a generation exactly what a computer could do. These children then went home, turned on their ZX Spectrums, and became a generation of software engineers. Still, the BBC Micro is remembered fondly.

The computer revolution is long over, but today we suffer a sea change of embedded processors and microcontrollers. With Arduinos and Raspberry Pis, the BBC has decided it’s time to put the power of an ARM microcontroller into the hands of a million 11- and 12-year olds. The result is the Micro:bit. It’s a small microcontroller board with an ARM processor, an IMU, buttons, Bluetooth and a 5×5 LED array – exactly what you need if you’re teaching a million kids how to blink an LED.

Although the BBC has finalized the design for the Micro:bit, there are no specs at all. However, a few educated guesses can be made. The USB controller is provided by Freescale, who also provide the digital compass and magnetometer. Programming is done through a web-based, Arduino-like IDE with what appears to be a decent Micro:bit specific library. The board is also mbed compatible. Bluetooth, and apparently the ARM Cortex M0 core, is provided by a Nordic nRF51822. There are only three alligator clip-compatible I/Os, and its doubtful any student will be building anything that would be too complex for an entry level ARM. It’s also 3V logic; finally, the tyranny of 5V has fallen.

The Micro:bit is best seen as a tool that enables the relatively recent addition of a computer science curriculum in UK schools. There is now a requirement for seven-year-olds to understand algorithms and create simple programs. Previously computer education in the UK has consisted of PowerPoint. Now, secondary school students will be learning Boolean logic.

While the Micro:bit is utterly useless as a tool for doing real work, education is not real work. For blinking a few LEDs, having a device react to movement, playing with Bluetooth, and other lesser evils of electronics, the Micro:bit is great. Not everyone will become the digital technologists this initiative is trying to create, but for those who have an inclination towards semicolons and electrons, this is a great introduction to technology.

Retrotechtacular: The Early Days of CGI

We all know what Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) is nowadays. It’s almost impossible to get away from it in any television show or movie. It’s gotten so good, that sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between the real world and the computer generated world when they are mixed together on-screen. Of course, it wasn’t always like this. This 1982 clip from BBC’s Tomorrow’s World shows what the wonders of CGI were capable of in a simpler time.

In the earliest days of CGI, digital computers weren’t even really a thing. [John Whitney] was an American animator and is widely considered to be the father of computer animation. In the 1940’s, he and his brother [James] started to experiment with what they called “abstract animation”. They pieced together old analog computers and servos to make their own devices that were capable of controlling the motion of lights and lit objects. While this process may be a far cry from the CGI of today, it is still animation performed by a computer. One of [Whitney’s] best known works is the opening title sequence to [Alfred Hitchcock’s] 1958 film, Vertigo.

Later, in 1973, Westworld become the very first feature film to feature CGI. The film was a science fiction western-thriller about amusement park robots that become evil. The studio wanted footage of the robot’s “computer vision” but they would need an expert to get the job done right. They ultimately hired [John Whitney’s] son, [John Whitney Jr] to lead the project. The process first required color separating each frame of the 70mm film because [John Jr] did not have a color scanner. He then used a computer to digitally modify each image to create what we would now recognize as a “pixelated” effect. The computer processing took approximately eight hours for every ten seconds of footage. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Early Days of CGI”

Vacuum gloves for climbing buildings

spiderman

Suction is incredibly powerful and can be put to use in several different ways. [Jem Stansfield] built a set of vacuum gloves for a BBC TV series to show how powerful suction really is. He climbed up the side of a 100 foot building, yet had to rely on his safety line near the top. The video of his daring ascension after the jump.

Continue reading “Vacuum gloves for climbing buildings”