BBC and partners unveil the landmark BBC micro:bit
July 7, 2015 10:45 AM   Subscribe

The BBC micro:bit – a pocket-sized, codeable computer that allows children to get creative with technology. In the BBC’s most ambitious education initiative for 30 years, up to 1 million devices will be given to every 11 or 12 year old child in year 7 or equivalent across the UK, for free. "We happily give children paint brushes when they’re young, with no experience - it should be exactly the same with technology. The BBC micro:bit is all about young people learning to express themselves digitally, and it’s their device to own."
posted by adept256 (39 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm rather surprised cstross didn't post this, actually.

Nice post.
posted by eriko at 10:48 AM on July 7, 2015


I wonder if there will be a way to get these outside the UK? Looks really cool.
posted by TedW at 10:53 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Thank God our government are taking steps to crush the BBC and prevent things like this from ever happening in the future. Hope, creativity and joy are so out of keeping with the lives these children should be looking forward to.
posted by howfar at 10:54 AM on July 7, 2015 [13 favorites]


for those from a different place and time, the "30 years" refers to this (which was only for rich kids...)
posted by andrewcooke at 11:00 AM on July 7, 2015


These remind me of those three simple drum machines (percussion? sequencer? thingies?) that were posted six months or a year ago: a bare board -- one was orange, I think -- for like $60 that could do tons o neat stuff but without persistent storage or any other "real computer" features.

Totally cool, though.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:04 AM on July 7, 2015


I wonder if there will be a way to get these outside the UK? Looks really cool.

The technical specifications for the device will be open-sourced, and the partnership plans to collectively develop a not-for-profit company to oversee and drive the micro:bit legacy. This will enable additional micro:bits to be made commercially available in the UK and internationally through various outlets in late 2015.
posted by adept256 at 11:05 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


@wenestvedt - teenage eng low price synths.
posted by andrewcooke at 11:07 AM on July 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


how do these compare to the raspberry pi? and / or why these, rather than the raspberry pi? i guess it's a bit closer to arduino with the lights n stuff?
posted by andrewcooke at 11:09 AM on July 7, 2015


The whole Arduino/Beagle/RasPi scene is terrific; I'd never have believed there'd be so much interest in low-end microcontroller DIY gadgetry. The micro:bit looks like it'll be such great fun to play with, and I expect it'll have a knock-on effect on robotics, music, ham radio and the other fields which have already been revitalised by its forebears.
posted by Devonian at 11:11 AM on July 7, 2015


andrewcooke: Yes, yes, YES! That is them! And here they are for sale, just making me want to spend some foolish (albeit small) money.

I really like the idea of offering something just functional enough to capture someone's attention, and then making them work a little to get interesting results, and finally leaving the door open to "real" tools if they want to move on. Like the "minimum viable product" principle brought to tech education outreach.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:13 AM on July 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Different niche than the Raspberry Pi. RasPi is a full-on general-purpose computer (Linux/Windows environment and all), while this thing is more into the Arduino/IoT/Intel Edison side (Hardware I/O).

Which is to say that I really want one of these, even though I also know that it's probably likely to end up in my Projects box sitting on top of my v1.0 Raspberry Pi.
posted by CrystalDave at 11:13 AM on July 7, 2015


But will it allow you to construct your own Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic(tm)?
posted by ericbop at 11:25 AM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


One last gasp before being utterly crushed, I guess. I bet the government hates this.
posted by Artw at 11:28 AM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Coming to CEX Stores this fall!
posted by parmanparman at 11:31 AM on July 7, 2015


One of my favourite maker stores (local! part of my hackspace! lovely people!) is partnering with micro.bit, where, right now, they're prototyping a bag that displays emojis.

I cannot wait to see what they do with it, mostly because I've been goofing off with conductive thread and LEDs and I'm hoping to make more and more stuff, so where Kitronik goes, so I go.
posted by Katemonkey at 11:33 AM on July 7, 2015


the "30 years" refers to this (which was only for rich kids...)

I wasn't a rich kid, but my primary school had a couple of these, and i can say they sent me on a journey that i didn't plan. I'm still not a rich kid, but i certainly owe some of my current situation to that rather clunky looking, off colour, very heavy, very tactile piece of technology that was available in the classroom when i was a seven year old.

Yay for the BBC!
posted by lawrencium at 12:14 PM on July 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


Whelp, I know what my kids are getting in their Christmas stocking, assuming they're available internationally by late 2015 as planned ....
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:16 PM on July 7, 2015


how do these compare to the raspberry pi? and / or why these, rather than the raspberry pi? i guess it's a bit closer to arduino with the lights n stuff?

Because the Arduino and Raspberry Pi aren't made by the BBC, so of course they have to build a different one, because they're the BBC, and they know best. God forbid a British company gets any kind of critical mass in the UK market: no, the BBC has to come along and cut its market out from under it, fragmenting the profitable home market, so some US company can come in and take over.

Sinclair all over again. Don't get me wrong, I love the BBC and its output, and not just TV/radio: BBC Jam should never have been killed, and the website is great, even if it sucks all the oxygen from the centre-left press and local media that might otherwise flourish.

But come on, hardware? Why? What market failure is this addressing? None. This is pointless empire building and a distraction from their core role.
posted by alasdair at 12:31 PM on July 7, 2015 [6 favorites]


I don't think it's the same sort of device as a Pi - they overlap (especially as something to control simple circuits and sensors) but they're quite different. The Pi is a small PC, while this requires a PC to configure it.
posted by BinaryApe at 12:46 PM on July 7, 2015


Because the Arduino and Raspberry Pi aren't made by the BBC, so of course they have to build a different one

That was my first thought too, but then I clicked the link and looked at the photo.
posted by effbot at 12:49 PM on July 7, 2015


@lawrencium - yeah, i wasn't thinking of the ones in schools, but the ones owned by individuals. they were much more expensive (but also much better) than a zx spectrum, for example.

maybe i'm just bitter i didn't have one.
posted by andrewcooke at 12:54 PM on July 7, 2015


But come on, hardware? Why? What market failure is this addressing? None. This is pointless empire building and a distraction from their core role.

Section 5.2 of the BBC Charter more or less lets them spend money on whatever they want, so long as their main business is still some kind of broadcasting/media. They don't have to worry about its impact only its relation to their Public Purposes. But those Public Purposes are broad and vague.
posted by Thing at 1:06 PM on July 7, 2015


God forbid a British company gets any kind of critical mass in the UK market

The Raspberry Pi is a British invention.
posted by blue t-shirt at 1:09 PM on July 7, 2015


But come on, hardware? Why?

Yeah, what possible good could come out of the BBC using its money to finance computer hardware.
posted by dng at 1:10 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


up to 1 million devices will be given to every 11 or 12 year old child

I don't know where the average child is going to keep up to a million devices.
posted by w0mbat at 1:31 PM on July 7, 2015 [13 favorites]


Seriously, though, this is a great idea. The BBC Micro led to a hoard of British kids getting into technology, and in business terms led to the creation of ARM whose processor designs have had a huge effect on the world.
posted by w0mbat at 1:41 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, if it wasn't for the BBC Micro, there'd be no ARM, so I think that worked out OK. And the BBC Micro was chosen as the best design for its task, not through some capricious bit of statist market distortion, and indeed it turned out to be a really, really good match. Sinclair sold a whole bunch of computers too in direct competition, and most schools had a bunch of ZX81s and Spectrums alongside Acorn kit. (And Research Machines, which subsequently got a stranglehold on educational computing and milked it with overpriced, under-specified PC clones. That story has never been told properly: I intend to, one day, when I've got more evidence for my suspicions about what happened. The market certainly failed there.)

I have absolutely no doubt that the BBC Micro project had a huge economic impact.

In any case, the micro:bit is open source, so anyone can build and sell it. Like the BBC Micro, it is specified for a particular niche and looks to have a very great deal of thought behind it in terms of developing code - have to wait and see what it's like, but it'll be teaching kids programming with functional and OO basics, a message-based bus and a bunch of other ideas that are resolutely 21st century. I fully expect the market for local technology companies to massively expand as a result of this project, and the presence of a huge cohort of kids exposed to important digital concepts growing up has such potential.
posted by Devonian at 1:42 PM on July 7, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'm not seeing anything about what this will cost the BBC. From TFA I just see a list of partners and what they are providing. Are there any cost estimates out there? I mean conceivably all the industry partners could be footing the bill for this right?
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:53 PM on July 7, 2015


I'm reminded of an episode of Horizon from 1977 that explored the history of the microchip and its effects on the economy (UK only, free VPN's work well to bypass). I really enjoyed the episode, though it has a very pessimistic view of the future. After the film there is also a round-table discussion about what can be done to integrate the new technology into the British economy. One of the points they raised was that steps needed to be taken to ensure that the UK would not simply be a consumer of microchip technology, that either production of the chips or production of systems and services that used the chips was a better strategy in the long run. The BBC providing tools to promote the skills needed to create software seems like it's totally in line with a policy of promoting an economy that exports technology.
posted by clorox at 2:06 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't know where the average child is going to keep up to a million devices.

On the floor for their parents to step on, just like Lego.
posted by TedW at 2:10 PM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, if it wasn't for the BBC Micro, there'd be no ARM, so I think that worked out OK.

The BBC providing tools to promote the skills needed to create software seems like it's totally in line with a policy of promoting an economy that exports technology.


I remember the BBC Micro at school. It was great, though not my first introduction to computers. I don't doubt it did much good for those kids who would have not used a computer for many years otherwise.

But it really is a flimsy defence of the BBC's actions. Why is it their role to promote exports? Or the development of computing businesses? There need to be a firmer justification and sounder basis for spending public money.
posted by Thing at 2:59 PM on July 7, 2015


Here are the tech specs if anyone is interested. DEFCON badges have been around $7 in quantities of 10k, this should be even cheaper.

The software is the big wildcard, so we'll see whether they have something that surpasses Arduino's ease of use, and if it can really be used on a phone or tablet. (Hmm, maybe they should just ship every kid a real keyboard instead...)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:20 PM on July 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


But it really is a flimsy defence of the BBC's actions. Why is it their role to promote exports? Or the development of computing businesses? There need to be a firmer justification and sounder basis for spending public money.

1) The role isn't about export or business, but public education of children. I don't see how that is out of the realm of consideration for a public broadcaster.

2) It's not even clear how much 'public money' is being spent by the BBC on this. This article suggests that among the many partners, Barclays is directly supporting the production and distribution of the micro-bit.
posted by modernnomad at 5:54 PM on July 7, 2015


Reminds me of Chip; the 9$ computer. (A kickstarter project that was aiming for 50 thousand dollars, and recently ended up with over 2 million. And they plan to start shipping base units in December).
posted by phoque at 6:35 PM on July 7, 2015


Most importantly the BBC will likely promise its content partners that they won't allow iplayer downloads on it thus encouraging kids to learn to hack the iplayer streams.
posted by srboisvert at 8:55 PM on July 7, 2015


The BBC has a huge role in the UK's creative economy, which annoys various people, and a huge role in UK society, which also annoys various people. If the BBC is successful, it annoys people; if it fails, it annoys people.

Me, I think if you're going to give every child of a certain age a computer with the express aim of teaching programming skills, then it's not the worst idea to do it via a consortium headed by an entity with public responsibility for education, commitment to open access, a track record for technical excellence and getting on for a hundred years' worth of electronic content creation.
posted by Devonian at 4:59 AM on July 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


It looks like a fun little device. To my mind, it really does fill a niche that isn't covered by Arduino, RPi, or other hardware that I'm familiar with.

The Pi is a good platform for learning to program but, until you build some electronics around its GPIO pins, all the action takes place via keyboard and screen. Similarly, the Arduino can be a great introduction to electronics and programming but, after you get bored of watching the Arduino's single on-board LED blink, you need to be building circuits right from the start. Great for hobbyists, but teaching two quite different sets of concepts in parallel becomes a bit tricky to design a curriculum around for youngish kids.

Straight out of the box this has an LED matrix, buttons, accelerometers, magnetometer and Bluetooth, all accessible by code, with no external circuitry to be built, broken and lost. From some of the promotional shots, it looks like capacitive touch is easy, too. Assuming they've done a good job with the language and/or something like scratch integration, it looks like a very good platform for teaching the basics of writing code for a device that you can interact with. Then when those basics are covered, they can start hooking more stuff up to the IO pins and learning some electronics alongside.

I agree that it does feel like a bit of a stretch for the BBC, much as I love them. I guess it falls into their "education" remit, and it sounds like they're heading the consortium rather than putting too much money into it, but it's still a bit weird.
posted by metaBugs at 6:59 AM on July 8, 2015


But it really is a flimsy defence of the BBC's actions. Why is it their role to promote exports? Or the development of computing businesses? There need to be a firmer justification and sounder basis for spending public money.

One of the BBC's six public purposes (the reasons it exists), is "to promote education and learning". This falls squarely into that area.

Could they have done this with an Arduino? Perhaps, though it's not a perfect fit. But would they have also got a deal that provided them to all 11-12-year-olds at (reportedly) little BBC expense? I don't imagine so once they'd included all the extras required to give them feature parity.

The one thing I hate overall is the idea that the BBC should only operate in areas where there has been a "market failure". That way leads to NPR.
posted by bonaldi at 8:28 AM on July 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


The one thing I hate overall is the idea that the BBC should only operate in areas where there has been a "market failure". That way leads to NPR.

The tendency to confuse technology with teleology is going to be something that the post-capitalist age looks back on with slightly patronising amusement. The tendency of humanity to mistake the temporary and contingent for the eternal and absolute is nothing new, but its manifestation in free-market dogma is becoming a major drag on progress.
posted by howfar at 2:54 PM on July 8, 2015


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