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BBC MicroBit Aims to Make Computing Cool for Kids

| by Alex Blewitt Follow 3 Followers on Jul 08, 2015. Estimated reading time: 3 minutes |

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Yesterday the BBC unveiled the BBC MicroBit, which is a system-on-a-chip-on-a-card (powered by a Cortex M0)  similar to the Raspberry Pi or Arduino. With a size of 4cm by 5cm it's pocket sized, and unlike the Raspberry Pi has an adaptor that allows it to be powered by a pair of AAA batteries, allowing the device to be powered whilst on the move with easily available power. It can also be powered, as well as programmed, through the micro USB connector. The low power requirements or 3V are significantly different from the Raspberry Pi or Arduino which typically require either a regulated 5V USB supply or a 7V+ supply for portable use.

The programming environment has not yet been released, but will be provided in the form of a web-based drag-and-drop graphical programming environment similar to Scratch as well as programming in dynamic languages like JavaScript and Python – An IDE will be made available later at www.microbit.co.uk. It is expected this will run on tablets (where USB peripherals can be attached) as well as traditional desktop/laptop computers.

Unlike the Raspberry Pi, but similar to the Arduino, there is no display output. Instead the device has a 5 by 5 LED arrangement on one side, which can be used to present simple character graphics and even scrolling messages. There are two user programmable buttons, but where it really excels is through its connector edge that has 3 digital/analogue input pins that are wide enough to accomodate a crocodile clip. This takes its cues from devices (like the Makey Makey) where allowing connectors to be hooked up with a crocodile clip make it much easier to experiment with for younger children. (The Raspberry Pi has male pins which are very closely spaced; the Arduino Uno has female sockets which are similarly closely spaced - although there are other Arduno deviecs such as the Lily which have connectors suitable for clips.) There are also an additional 20 pins which are likely to require connecting with an edge connector, likely as an aftermarket option.

There is also bluetooth on board as well as an accelerometer and compass which have become standard in mobile telephony. A full schematic of the device is shown below:

BBC MicroBit schematics from the BBC Media Centre

The BBC has a history of expanding education in the UK – as well as the BBC Micro (launched in the 1980s) it also popularised the idea of remote learning through the Open University in Milton Keynes which distributed lectures over late-night TV channel capacity. The BBC Micro also drove the success of Acorn Computers Ltd, which subsequently created the Acorn computer and the ARM chips. Although Acorn Computers migrated into networking (later acquired by Broadcom) the spin off ARM Limited with its low-power devices went on to become the dominant system on a chip and IP provider – if you're reading this on a mobile device, there's a very good chance the CPU or SoC is using ARM provided cores. And in full circle, the BBC MicroBit uses the ARM Cortex M0 for its heart. (For further reading, see Linux Voice's latest interview with Sophie Wilson on the develoment of ARM.)

The BBC MicroBit is made with many partners, including ARM, Barclays, Element14, Freescale, Lancaster University, Microsoft, Nordic Semiconductor, Samsung, ScienceScope, Technology Will Save Us, and the Wellcome Trust. There are also a number of product champions who will be promoting it, including Bluetooth SIG, Bright Future, Cannybots, Cisco, Code Club, Coderdojo, Code Kingdoms, Creative Digital Solutions, CultureTECH, Institute of Engineering and Technology, Kitronik, London Connected Learning Centre, MyMiniFactory, Python Software Foundation, STEMNet, TeenTech and the Tinder Foundation. [Author's disclosure; I volunteer for Code Club and am a STEMNet ambassador and reside in Milton Keynes]

The BBC MicroBit will be given to 1 million UK children in October, and units will also be available for purchase through distributors towards the end of the year. The goal of the MicroBit is to give a tangible device that can be carried and attached to mobile projects, or even as a daughter board for a Raspberry Pi or Arduino, as well as teaching programming language skills.

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