Life with Pi: The Raspberry Pi costs just £32 but can do just about anything - if you put the hours in

The slender piece of circuit board was designed to teach kids to code, but the rest of the tech world has also gone wild for it thanks to its knock-down price, low power consumption and its astonishing range of applications

How does a slender piece of circuit board become a global phenomenon, selling more than 1 million units in its first year? The Raspberry Pi may have been designed to teach kids to code, but the rest of the tech world has also gone wild for it, with its knock-down price – £32 for a miniature, bare-bones computer – low power consumption and its astonishing range of applications.

Despite its low cost, the Pi has everything a basic computer needs – processor, graphics and memory. And because it's also highly programmable, a huge online community has sprung up, customising their Pis and proudly documenting the results.

Enthusiasts have harnessed the Pi to power voice-activated robots (the RaPiRo), play musical instruments (the BeetBox), get sozzled with Pi-controlled beer brewing (BrewPi) and even control high-altitude balloons, beaming photos back from near-space (Pi in the Sky).

Of course it still is, essentially, a £32 credit-crunch PC and if you hook the Pi up to a keyboard and television you can just settle for surfing the web, playing games (there's enough horsepower to trump the PlayStation 2) and even watching films. And that's exactly what I tried for my first Raspberry Pi project: creating a low-cost media centre via the Wi-Fi-connected Pi.

Unlike Sky TV, say, this credit card-sized board doesn't work straight out of the box. You'll need another computer to download the Pi's Linux operating system to an SD card, before loading that onto the Pi itself. Thanks to the online tutorials, getting up and running takes little pre-knowledge – just time, patience and care: my first Raspberry Pi broke when the slot holding the memory card in place snapped, rendering it lifeless.

Two Pis and several days later, my media centre is up and running, and I'm watching catch-up television from the likes of the BBC's iPlayer add-on, and streaming films stored on my desktop computer's hard drive. It's easy to use and brilliantly effective, though for just streaming online content it's not as cheap as Google's new £22 Chromecast TV dongle (though the Pi has access to far more content).

Flushed from the (eventual) success of my first project, I strip the Pi back down and prepare it for a proper programing session – exactly what the Pi was designed for. I start with the basics, wiring up a few LEDs to the Pi, and then start writing a program (grabbed from another online tutorial), to get them to switch on and off in a pattern: all easier said than done.

Wiring them up with each accompanying resistor is like threading spaghetti through a sieve, and several hours and 17 lines of code later, I'm still struggling, as only half of the LEDs I have are blinking. I give up on the idea – creating my own R2-D2 has never seemed so far off – and switch the Pi back to media-playing duties.

Which tells you something about the audience for the Pi: it's a great proposition for dedicated enthusiasts, and a tasty bit of kit for teaching kids to code. But the average user could be put off by the constant tinkering required to get the most out of it. This hasn't, of course, held back the million or so enthusiasts out there, and if you're looking to see what a bit of perseverance, skill and 100 lines of code can achieve, look no further than the ingenious individuals on this page.

For more information visit raspberrypi.org. This Pi was provided by official suppliers RS components – uk.rs-online.com

 

1. Shota Ishiwatari, 29

Project: RAPIRO humanoid robot

Key Ingredients

1 x Pi, 1 x Pi camera
12 x servo motors
1 x distance sendor
2 x speakers
1 x plastic robot chassis

It was only a matter of time until someone used the Pi to make a programmable robot, and this cute but highly functional design from Japanese entrepreneur Ishiwatari looks the best so far. Creating a 3D-printed chassis, he's slotted the Pi into the head section, used servos (devices that correct the performance of a mechanism) to control the hands and feet, and a motion sensor to allow the Rapiro to carry out tasks such as guarding your home and even doing a little light house work with its mini-duster. But don't fire your cleaner just yet: at only 10 inches it can't reach very high. rapiro.com


2. Scott Garner, 33

Project: BeetBox musical instrument

Key Ingredients

1 x Pi, 6 x beetroots
1 x piece of hardwood
1 x capacitive touch sensor
1 x amplifier
1 x speaker

How do you turn six root vegetables into a drum kit? Speak to American artist and NYU Masters student Scott Garner, who's brilliant but bonkers device involves linking a Pi to a touch sensor to determine when one of six beetroots is being tapped by a user. The Pi monitors when a beetroot has been touched, triggering a pre-recorded drum beat which is outputted to the device's speaker. "At first I thought it was a silly project," says Garner, "but I was delighted and surprised when people kept coming to play on it." Cue a gleeful cacophony of rock 'n' roll rhythms. Beatles riffs work well, though high-tempo drum 'n' bass fans might find the Pi's timelag a deal breaker. http://scott.j38.net

3. Cameron Weibe, 29

Project: DIGITAL ART FRAME

Key Ingredients

1 x Pi
1 x wooden picture frame
1 x slim LCD display

Ripping an existing painting out of a favourite fine-art frame and mounting a high-definition LCD screen inside it instead (using duct tape to secure the screen to the frame) was the genius, but simple, idea of Canadian artist and graphic designer Weibe. Programming a basic routine into his Pi computer hidden behind it, Weibe managed to create a code that continuously pulled in the 50 most popular images each day from art website deviantART, providing his visitors a smorgasbord of rotating works from this huge collective of online artists.

 

4. Dave Akerman, 53

Project: Pi in the sky balloon camera

Key Ingredients

1 x helium balloon
1 x Pi
1 x GPS chip
1 x radio transmitter
1 x Pi camera add-on
4 x lithium batteries

Sending a Pi into near-space is a lofty achievement in itself, but that wasn't sufficient for computer programmer and amateur high-altitude balloonist David Ackerman. After breaking the UK amateur record for an unmanned balloon flight in 2011, Ackerman subsequently added a Pi on board, using it to transmit back stunning live images of the earth 25 miles above South-west England, using the Pi's add-on camera. "Receiving those live images, I had this feeling of being up there with it," he says. The fiddly bit? "It took many hours to write the code for this," says Ackerman, who needed to combine lengthy routines to communicate with each component, plus write an algorithm to help the Pi decide which were the best photos to transmit back to earth. daveakerman.com


5. Alyssa Dayan 16 & Tom Hartley, 17

Project: AirPi climate sensor

Key Ingredients

1 x Pi
1 x humidity and temperature sensor
1 x air pressure sensor
1 x general air-quality sensor, carbon-monoxide sensor
1 x nitrogen-dioxide sensor
1 x school chemistry lab to test and calibrate sensor levels

How do we know that today's kids care about the environment? Check out A-level students Dayan and Hartley, who have put together a fully functional weather and air-quality device. Connecting a series of pollution and climate sensors to the Pi and writing a Python programme to recognise and track these levels, the duo then uploaded the results onto a website that others can add their local data, too. Soon, enthusiasts from around the world were using the instructions on Hartley and Dayan's website to build their own AirPi's, and adding their data to the duo's nascent weather network. "Out of the blue people from places such as Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam, were contacting us to join up," says Dayan. http://airpi.es

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
News
news
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

    £100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

    C# Developer

    £35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: My client is lo...

    SAP FICO CONSULTANT - LONDON

    £55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SENIOR SAP FICO...

    SAP BI/BO CONSULTANT

    £60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BI CONSULTA...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn