Oct 252014

On Wednesday I went to Cambridge to visit the Raspberry Pi Headquarters, affectionately known as ‘Pi Towers’, to hang out for the day. I met and talked to pretty-much everybody during the day. ‘Everybody’ is now quite a lot of people. There must be about 20 people working at Pi Towers now. In May there was a large, unoccupied space on one side of the office. This time, that space was full of people working on computers.

Raspberry Pi has recently hired a bunch of new engineering talent as a result of Broadcom closing down its mobile division. Many of these people had already been working on Pi-related stuff in their spare time (plus whatever time Broadcom allowed them during working hours). For example, since the beginning, Dom Cobley (forum name Dom) has been doing a lot of the work on the ‘binary blob firmware’ which gets the BCM 2835 chip talking to Linux. He’s now working on software optimisation.

Raspberry Pi now has a very solid nucleus of engineers with intimate knowledge of both hardware and software sides of the BCM 2835. Gert was there as well. He’s taken up residence, for the time being, working on playing with trains a rather cool new add-on which will be due out quite soon. It can be used with a great deal more than trains. Watch out for an announcement about this in the coming weeks.

And Then There Was A Fire Drill

Shortly after I arrived, the fire alarm went off and we all had to go out and congregate in the garden of the college next door. But this gave me a chance to get a classic shot of Carrie Anne’s back with Clive Beale, Liz Upton, Gert, Gordon, Jon, Dom, Ross and Office Manager Emma (PhD entomology) wearing the yellow fluorescent Fire Warden’s jacket, which looks white to my phone in the bright sun.

Evacuated Staff from Raspberry Pi

Evacuated Staff from Raspberry Pi

So What Did You Find Out?

“Enough of the pleasantries” I hear you say. “Tell us something you found out!” OK.

When there are visitors to Pi Towers, the hardware guys get a bit stressed because most of what they’re working on is ‘under wraps’. I remember when I did a pre-university year at IBM, the security there was legendary. This is perfectly normal for a technology company. Development cycles are long. What’s being worked on now may not see the light of day for months, years, or ever. So the last thing they would want is big-mouthed bloggers blabbering about it. And rightly so! But I’ll talk about that which I can.

7″ DSI Touchscreen

I saw the touchscreen add-on that Gordon has been working on. The driver board has shrunk to about the size of a Raspberry Pi HAT and it’s going to be a neat little package. It’s a 7 inch, 800 x 480 pixel, 10-point capacitive touch-screen with a wide black bezel. It looks about the size and shape of a 2012 Nexus 7. Its main anticipated use is for people who want to do a custom user interface, although it will work as a mouse in LXDE and for web browsing (but there is no pop-up keyboard in LXDE). It should work well in XBMC too.

Of course, I asked the “when?” question, but a firm date is not on the cards yet. Eben said at TechCrunch this week “towards the end of this year/early next year”.

The screen itself is unchanged from when I saw it in February at the Manchester Jamboree. So it still looks like this…

The official Raspberry Pi Foundation 7 inch DSI screen (800 x 480) prototype (Feb 2013)

The official Raspberry Pi Foundation 7 inch DSI screen (800 x 480) prototype (Feb 2013)

But the PCB is a lot smaller now. It sits under the Pi and appears to have mount holes in the same four locations as the Pi HAT specification. I didn’t take a photo, and if I had, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to post it anyway. But here’s a screenshot of Eben showing it at TechCrunch Disrupt earlier in the week.

Eben with the touch-screen and interface board at TechCrunch Disrupt

Eben with the touch-screen and interface board at TechCrunch Disrupt (screenshot from video)

OK. What About The A+?

Eben also said at TechCrunch Disrupt this week…

“We hope to be making an announcement pretty soon about the A+. We think it’s going to be an exciting product. With the A+ we think we’ve managed to make something that will really capture people’s imagination.”

And in the words of Forrest Gump “and that’s all I have to say about that.” I’m looking forward to the impending announcement as much as the rest of you!

What About The Rest Of The Day?

One of the reasons for going was to hand over and help set up some special Picademy edition 10″ HDMIPis to Carrie Anne. Of course, once we had one set up I tweeted a photo, as you do…

Carrie Anne’s expression says it all. “What are you taking a picture for? You’re gonna tweet that aren’t you?”
“Yep. Sure am!”

In the relative safety of the Education section you can tweet photos without much risk of divulging secrets.

Here’s a closer look at the custom Picademy version of the HDMIPi screen (before I aligned all the bolt slots)…

HDMIPi - Picademy Special Edition (custom 10")

HDMIPi – Picademy Special Edition (custom 10″)

Carrie Anne and I also discussed a potential project we may collaborate on. We hope to be able to make an announcement about that in the coming weeks. :)

I also shot a little video while I was there, which I will edit and publish in due course.

Liz’s Fountain Pens

Liz showed me a selection of her fountain pens. Stupidly I didn’t take any photos, but Liz collects and restores antique fountain pens as a hobby. She also enjoys using them. She had a roll of about 10 or 12 pens with her and a massive selection of inks that you’d probably find only in an art shop. You may have wondered why her Bio on the Raspberry Pi site says “Usually quite inky”. Well now you know!

I managed to dig up one of Liz’s tweets with a photo of inks. But I think the collection has grown a bit since this photo was taken…

Rachel’s Sous Vide Chef’s Hat

Sadly Rachel was off sick, but Jonathan showed me the sous vide HAT she’s been working on with him and Ben.

Rachel Rayns' Sous Vide HAT. Rev 1.

Rachel Rayns’ Sous Vide HAT. Rev 1.

The PCB has space for an Energenie remote power socket controller, to allow safe switching on and off of the heater, and a small LCD for display output. It also has connections for temperature sensors and three control buttons. The chip you can see is the EEPROM required to comply with the HAT specification and tell the Pi what sort of device is connected to it, so it knows how to configure the GPIO ports when it boots up.

If you don’t know, sous vide is a method of slow cooking which can be used to produce succulent, tasty food. Essentially it involves heating the food in a vacuum-sealed bag at around 63 Celsius for a long time. So it requires precise temperature control. Rachel has made and used a Pi-based sous vide, which is now going to be turned into a Raspberry Pi Resource project that people can make. When finalised, the PCB will be available so you could make your own. There’s no set date for this. “When it’s done.” Rachel’s called it the Chef’s Hat. I think it’s a great name and check out the logo.

The Slice

I also met James Adams (director of hardware) for the first time. He and Gordon gave me a walkround of the Slice, which is a Raspberry Pi compute module-based media centre which did rather well on KickStarter recently, raising £227,480.

It looks really slick and the aluminium case is sturdy, weighty and substantial. I didn’t have my camera with me at the time, as we were in the hardware section. But here’s a shot I’ve nicked from the KickStarter page.

The Slice, based on Raspberry Pi Compute Module

The Slice, based on Raspberry Pi Compute Module

James showed me it alongside the Compute Module Development Board. The Slice board is a fair bit larger.

All Good Meetings End In The Pub

At the end of the working day Pete Stevens, one of the owners of Mythic Beasts, the guys who host RaspberryPi.org and RasPi.TV, dropped by the office and we all went to the pub. Pete runs marathons, likes travelling round Europe by train, and is a thoroughly nice bloke.

A little bit later on, Eben collected Matt Richardson (Make Magazine and author of Getting Started with the Raspberry Pi) who had just come into town. It was great to meet him too – another thoroughly nice bloke.

When we popped back into the office to pick up bags at about 2300, there were still two people working. Gotta admire their dedication. This might seem totally bonkers to non-engineers. But when you’ve made good progress on solving a problem, it’s good to take it as far as you can while you’re ‘on a roll’. When your work is something you love, it doesn’t feel like work.

Thanks For Having Me Over

So that ends my little summary of my visit. Thank you Liz and all at Raspberry Pi for inviting me and talking to me. There’s such a buzz about the place with so many impressive and tremendously nice people all together.

HATs off to them for building such an excellent team. With such a solid foundation, we can expect great things to come. (Puns intended.)

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