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How low-cost computing gets kids into tech

We speak to a teenager about the joys of programming a Raspberry Pi and the startup he has formed around a Pi-based medical device

When the PC was first introduced in 1981, it cost $1,561, which, according to Wikipedia, is equivalent to over $4,000 in today’s money. The original IBM PC had just 16kB of memory and could be purchased with a colour graphics display adapter.

Almost 30 years on, it is now possible to buy a Raspberry Pi 4 with 2GB of RAM for just $35. While it looks like a cheap circuit board, the Pi is an extremely versatile computing device that is capable of running Linux and Windows 10 IoT Core. In launching the product in February 2012, the Raspberry Pi Foundation wanted to give children a blank canvas that could be used to demonstrate the creativity of computing.

“They would be able to create something and gain a sense of achievement when they wrote their first program,” Raspberry Pi co-founder Robert Mullins told Computer Weekly in a 2013 interview.

It has been eight years since the introduction of the Raspberry Pi. In that time, the low-cost computer has opened up programming to a whole generation of children and adults, who can connect it up to make useful computer-based hardware devices.

A contactless medical monitor

One of those is Adarsh Ambati, who finds coding fun. The 15-year-old student from San Jose has developed a number of computer devices based on the Raspberry Pi.

Learning the skill of programming a computer can be daunting. But along with teaching computer programming at school, Ambati said free online resources and coding clubs were key to helping children develop a deep interest in programming and computer hardware.

Ambati first started to program in middle school with the Raspberry Pi. “My first experience with programming was in the fourth grade. I was lucky enough to attend a school that provided an early education in computer science,” he said. He started with Scratch, the block-based programming language that is often used to introduce children to computer programming. 

Ambati said he was amazed to be able to move a sprite graphics character across a screen using a few simple blocks. After programming in Scratch for a year, he began learning Python. “My first Python, like many others, was the Hello, World! program. Seeing the computer spit out the words ‘Hello, World!’ made me feel like I was actually talking directly to the computer.” 

Early days of computing

Over the summer, Computer Weekly has been collecting readers’ recollections of their first experiences of computing.

One reader, Christine Arrowsmith, read about the world’s first commercial computer, used by the Lyon’s Tea Company, when she was a child. “When I was little, people used to ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up. The usual response was, ‘Work with computers’,” she said. Arrowsmith has now retired and is a volunteer at the Science and Industry Museum looking after the Manchester Baby, the world’s first electronic stored-program computer.

Another reader, Mark Haeking, told us his first computing experience was an ICL 1902. “Booting involved putting in the first few instructions by hand, using switches to read the operating system from paper tape. I upgraded to boot from magnetic tape and then directly from disc, which got me a summer job running the computer room at the ICL graduate training centre before going to university,” he said.

Another reader, Peter Jesty, said his first experience in computing was in January 1967. “During my gap year between school and university, I took a course in the programming language Fortran IV Level E at the University of Chile (in Spanish),” he said. Jesty went on to study computing service at university, writing numerical subroutines, and used an IBM 360 mainframe.

Computer Weekly is keen to hear about more readers’ first experiences of computing. Was it a Tandy TRS-80, a BBC Model B, a Commodore Pet, a PDP-11, a System/390, or something else? Please email [email protected] with the subject line “My first computer” and tell us a bit about what it was and what you used it for.

When asked how he was introduced to the Raspberry Pi, Ambati said: “When I was in the sixth grade, I used to accompany my older brother to BioCurious, a local community lab. It is a place where 11-year-old science enthusiasts can pursue their own basic research under the guidance of trained mentors.”

Through BioCurious, Ambati started developing his first project with the Raspberry Pi – a smart sprinkler system. Then, while his mother was recovering from a heart procedure, she told him that the intrusive monitoring she was hooked up to made her feel more ill.

“After my mother’s hospital experience with the wires that hindered her recovery, I decided to use the Raspberry Pi to build a contactless vital signs monitor”
Adarsh Ambati, teen developer

“After my mother’s hospital experience with the wires that hindered her recovery, I decided to use the Raspberry Pi to build a contactless vital signs monitor,” he said.

Ambati chose to build it on the Pi because it is both low-cost and easy to program. The project was showcased in the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s Coolest Projects technology fair for young people. The project has been selected to join the Pear Garage, part of Pear VC, which aims to help student engineers turn their ideas into businesses.

“For now, I am working on my project to increase the accuracy of the contactless vital signs monitor, while also learning about the best way to start and run a company,” he said.

As for future developments, Ambati aims to increase the accuracy of the monitor by using Eulerian video magnification techniques – a computational technique for visualising subtle colour and motion variations in ordinary videos. For instance, it can be applied to monitor blood circulation by examining human skin colour. Ambati also plans to develop a version based on the Raspberry PI Zero to further lower the cost, as well as implement protocols for security. 

“I am very excited about this project and hope to take it to the next level because I truly believe that my monitor will not only ensure the well-being of patients, but will protect healthcare providers,” he said.

While academically, biology, maths and computer programming are the subjects Ambati is most confident in, he is also very passionate about the environment. As such, he has developed an interest in the interdisciplinary field of bioinformatics. As for a future career, Ambati hopes to develop his bio-informatics skills and apply them in the field of environmental sciences or ecology.

The Raspberry Pi opened the doors to low-cost devices that could be used to introduce kids to programming and hardware development.

“I would argue that developing this interest in today’s kids is absolutely vital, not only for their success, but for humanity as a whole,” said Ambati. “In the world today, there exist numerous problems, ranging from climate change to worldwide pandemics. Programming and computer hardware can be very effective in solving these problems. However, if [young people] choose to ignore these problems, they will only magnify until they can no longer be solved.”

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