BBC Micro:Bit Hands-On

microbitWe Attended a great STEM BBC Micro:bit networking event earlier this week at Reading University, I had seen the Micro:bit at BETT but had not been able to get ‘hands-on’. The first thing to be clear is that while there is some level of overlap between the Raspberry Pi and Micro:bit they are different, both have good and bad points when you consider their target markets. Having not looked too closely at the Micro:bit before I was pleasantly surprised with the in built hardware which includes accelerometer, compass, I2C and Bluetooth, see the following link to the dedicated BBC media site to see a more complete spec. On the down side the only direct ‘display’ capability is a 5 x 5 matrix of LED.FullSizeRender1

Programming is via a browser web interface (Explorer and Chrome both seemed to work), connected via a micro USB ( I am assuming you will also be able to connect via Bluetooth in the future but this was not demo’ed at our session ). One of the key design elements is that nothing ‘special’ should need to be installed on the PC / Tablet / Smartphone to control / program the Micro:bit. A number of programming options will be available, we used the Microsoft “Block Editor” which is very Scratch like in terms of operation. Having tested your program (which you do within the programming environment), hit the compile icon and the an executable is created on a remote server application and automatically downloaded to via the your browser. You then drag this file onto the Micro:bit (which appears as a mass storage device / drive on your PC) and it is again automatically downloaded to the Micro:bit and the application runs. An option to program in Python is also shown on the website, this is not available yet but my wife did a bit of digging and found this  article  which gives a lot more info. As I understand it the only potential option for local programming on the Micro:bit will be Python, other options all seem to need good web access.

In terms of interfacing to the outside world it has 3 digital / analogue  input / outputs which come out as ‘rings’ you can connect to with small crocodile clips, there are additional functions including I2C available via the edge connector, but it is worth noting that other than the 3 ‘ring’ connections you will need a suitable socket connector to connect with.

Technical detail is currently quite limited but we were told that the stated BBC plan is that everything associated with the Micro:bit hardware will be open sourced following the launch, which I certainly support.

The question everyone who sees the Micro:bit asks is ‘where can FullSizeRender2I get one’ ? The project has been delayed but there seems to be a level of confidence that the Micro:bit card will start being sent out to schools this spring, which I take to mean April.

So my thoughts, generally positive it is certainly great fun and has enough built in capability to allow some really creative applications – there were some interesting Hacks on show at BETT.  In that it does not need a dedicated screen or keyboard / leads it does address some of the concerns leveled at Raspberry Pi in the classroom. Against this you will need Internet access to use the programming tools including the emulator. I know from running STEM sessions in schools this can still be a challenge.

I do also see some problems with the ‘ownership model’ – one is being given to every UK year 7 pupil in this school year. The hope being that school’s and / or parents will buy them in the future. The problem I can see is that on one hand schools with tight budgets will try to hang on to them to use for the future years – depriving children say of the opportunity to code at home over the holidays. While on the other side given that there will no doubt be an initial supply and demand issue some children / parents are going to want to get their hands on them simply to sell on eBay -the initial production run is for 1 million parts so hopefully stop this in time.

To finish the Micro:bit should certainly make a positive contribution to getting more young people ‘into’ programming and computers, particularly given the work that has gone to reduce any barriers to access the programming tools. Compared to the Raspberry Pi it is less suited to building more complex and / or to ‘permanent’ projects. The big unknown is if the Micro:bit will build up the sort of the user community the Raspberry Pi has.

If you want to have a play, the website including an emulator is available now.

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