The Life of (Raspberry) Pi

Possibly the most awesome present anybody who’s partial to a bit (or a byte!) of computing or programming could receive this Christmas would have been the Raspberry Pi, and what a joy it was when I received a delicious mouthful this Christmas!

 

With my new Raspberry Pi device, coupled with a robotic arm I received from my doting five year old nephew (I do wonder who the present was really for!), I thought I’d begin to document my journey working with the Raspberry Pi and hopefully share a few slices with you, demonstrating how easy it is to get started with programming (just don’t quote me on that one when we come to write an Angry Birds clone using Pygame or Scratch!)

 

Initially the intention of this article was to run you through the first steps with a quasi “getting started” video, demonstrating how easy it is to get started with programming- without wanting to bore you with all the same “unboxing” videos littered around YouTube and my other social networking platforms.

My second intention was that this was an opportunity to embrace the challenge of macro photography and demonstrate my depth of field skills with an iPhone, which everybody loves to marvel at – take that Mr. Sigma 200-500mm f/2.8 EX DG Telephoto Zoom lens!

 

Thirdly, the opportunity to create my own Frankenstein style servant was just too good to pass up- thank you nephew!

 

So here it is, the documentation of my journey with the Raspberry Pi…of course I’ll not be forgetting the robotic arm which will be hooked up and transformed into our very own Kalexiko “Thing”.

 

Inside the Tool Kit.

When creating a robotic arm servant, an expert needs an expert tool kit and inside mine there was;

  • Model B Raspberry Pi mainboard
  • Integrated SD socket with Raspbian OS on a 4GB SD card
  • Full 1080p HD video output via HDMI
  • RCA (phono) video output plus 3.5mm audio output socket
  • Twin USB ports
  • RJ45 10/100 network socket
  • 512MB (shared with GPU)
  • Micro USB 5V 700mA for the Pi board. Kit supplied with 2.1A PSU
  • 16 pin GPIO customisable pin array for I/O devices
  • Powered via USB micro B socket

 

The peripheral I used to get this up and running was:

  • AC powered 4-port USB hub
  • USB keyboard
  • USB optical mouse
  • 2.1A twin USB mains power supply
  • 1.5m gold-plated USB A to micro B cable to power the Raspberry Pi
  • 1.5m gold-plated HDMI cable
  • N150 Nano Wi-Fi dongle for wireless connectivity

 

Connecting the Parts.

I’m not the most nimble fingered, but putting this together was just as easy as plugging in USB adapters into a series of ports – easy as Pi! The board is very secure and stable, with each component fixed on with some apparent care and attention- hats off to the Element14 guys! As you can see everything slots in nicely, is designed to allow for as many attachments required without becoming cumbersome and unmanageable.

The USB hub is a great help, but I felt that the WiFi connectivity may make this redundant sooner rather than later. The video output from the Raspberry Pi is either HDMI or composite video via an RCA jack.

 

For my initial purposes I used the office Optima projector with HDMI inputs and a spare HDMI cable so this wasn’t a problem for me. Apparently, you can’t connect to a monitor using VGA – the Raspberry Pi FAQ says ‘there is no VGA support, but adapters are available, although these are relatively expensive.’ To get some real use of the Raspberry Pi, I plugged it into an Ethernet LAN cable and had no problem getting online.

You can also connect it to the Internet using a USB Wi-Fi or wireless adapter. Similarly the keyboard, mouse, dongle and USB hub were all easy enough to connect. Connecting the Raspberry Pi was pretty elementary and very self explanatory, so once you’re all hooked up, you’re ready to go. I’m looking forward to getting back into fiddling around with using breadboards, resistors, capacitors, diodes etc. Now, to bring it to life…

 

Bringing it to life.

If I’m honest, New Years wasn’t the only countdown I have done this year, bringing to life my Raspberry Pi demanded its own. Starting from three I counted down the ‘big switch on’ and to my great relief, I had a bit of a hoorah moment as lights came on indicating the PSU, SD card and USB were all operable- my creature was alive!

 

There is no on/off switch on the Raspberry Pi, you just plug-in or remove power to turn it on/off. When switched on, the Raspberry’s LED lights turn on and start blinking. The Raspberry Pi obtains an IP address automatically via DHCP. You can log onto your router to find out the IP address assigned to your Raspberry or alternatively run ifconfig through the terminal.

Booting up was quick! I was up and running before the projector had warmed up and firing on all cylinders.

 

The opening screen by default presented the initial configuration menu allowing you to change password, manage memory, screen res etc. To avoid this screen for future boot-ups there’s an option to go straight into desktop mode if you wish. Just to note, the Raspberry Pi is continually being updated so it’s a good idea to run an update before getting started.

 

Getting Started

Once the initial setup has finished, you’re in! I assume that you, like me, have a basic knowledge of Linux and can make your way around it. By running a few commands, you’ll see that the Pi is just like any other machine.

Then, I launched its graphical user ‘X window system’ by typing startx at the command line. Here’s what I got;

The operating system comes with the Midori web browser installed. Here’s what the Kalexiko site looked like:

Unfortunately I didn’t get round to setting up any video support, but was greeted with an amusing message to inform me so:

The Pi’s graphics are great and its processing power is surprisingly quick – almost like a Pentium, so this really was a pleasant surprise and I even headed over to the pre-installed Python games section, which works great. So there we have it, it’s alive…ALIVE!

 

My Next Master Plan

Without wanting to get carried away with hooking up my robotic arm and accidently being the creator of the next generation of world dominating cyborgs; I think it’s important to get a better understanding of Python and potentially Scratch. In all honesty, what better way than this! The Debian OS comes with Python installed so with a few commands you can install anything you like such as PHP, MySQL, Apache to run a local Web server or Media server.

 

XMBC appears to be very popular at the moment. So, having said that, it’s time to have fun and indeed there’s so much to be had! There are add-on boards (such as Gertboard and Pi-Face) that expand the Pi’s capabilities, to make it easier to use for physical computing and give it functions; like driving motors, making lights flash, turning your Lego man into an actual moving robot and obviously powering your robotic Franken-arm!

 

To Conclude

I read a notable, if not profound piece from the Raspberry Pi team which I’d like to finish on – “We don’t think that the Raspberry Pi is a fix to all of the world’s computing issues; we do believe that we can be a catalyst. We want to see cheap, accessible, programmable computers everywhere”. With that in mind and the latest Ubuntu Mobile OS release at the start of this year, could there be a more exciting time for Open Source Software?

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