One million Micro:bits have been distributed among school children since March 2016

Micro:bit Educational Foundation reboots the BBC micro-computer

Image credit: Tereza Pultarova

The BBC has handed over the Micro:bit micro-computer to a newly launched foundation, which has announced bold plans including a roll-out in Europe, Asia and North America, new language versions and added functionality.

The Micro:bit Educational Foundation, headed by Zach Shelby, former Director of Technology for Internet of Things at ARM, said a new version of the 4×5 cm computer could be introduced as early as 2017, while new features have already been added to the existing computer, including peer-to-peer communication.

“From the start we said that we wanted BBC Micro:bit to have a legacy and we thought that the best way to do that would be through a non-for-profit independent organisation,” explained Gareth Stockdale Head of Operations and Public Affairs at BBC Learning. “The BBC is a founding member, we are not stepping away from it, we are just doing it more in a partnership.”

Since the device's launch in March 2016, one million Micro:bits have been distributed among school children in the UK for free. The device, powered by an ARM Cortex-M0 processor, is also commercially available to the public for £15. It comes equipped with an accelerometer and magnetometer, Bluetooth and USB and has a simple built-in display consisting of 25 LED lights.

Children can write simple programmes using a specially tailored programming language on the project’s website and download these programmes into their Micro:bits. The interface has been designed to be as simple as possible so that children don’t even think they are actually coding when writing programmes for the device.

“The way Micro:bit works is that you literally plug this thing into your computer via USB and you go to a webpage,” Zach Shelby explained. “We do have a very intuitive block programming language. It’s not even a language, it’s more like placing blocks here and there. One block may play a sound and another block may write your name, you can move the blocks around and order them and do very simple things with it.”

The technology, aimed at 11-year-olds, is much simpler than the more well-known Raspberry Pi computer and hopes to remove barriers to programming for those children that don’t necessarily consider themselves technical.

“We don’t compete with Raspberry Pi,” Shelby said. “We have always seen Raspberry Pi as a device that works alongside the BBC Micro:bit, not in competition with it. We see the BBC Micro:bit as an initial first step into coding, which eventually leads to other more complex devices such as Raspberry Pi.”

Shelby said that the device is already delivering on its promises. Out of the girls using the device, 39 per cent said they would like to study ICT further, compared to the 23 per cent before Micro:bit’s launch. 86 per cent of boys involved with the technology said it made computer science more interesting, while 88 per cent said it showed that coding isn’t as hard as it seems.

The new version to be launched next year will have more computing power and feature some new sensors, according to Shelby. The foundation also wants to add more pixels to the gadget’s display to enable displaying Chinese and Japanese characters. The roll-out in Europe is set to take place in the last quarter of 2016, while distribution in North America and China will commence in 2017.

The foundation will also launch a new editor that will allow children to smoothly move from the graphical programming interface to understanding what is behind writing actual code.

Controlled via two buttons, Micro:bit can be programmed to display simple messages or play simple games. Through its Bluetooth functionality it can be used to remotely control a smartphone or as a simple wearable device measuring steps.

“You can measure how much it is moving and you can even sense the light level,” said David Whale, Micro:bit community support engineer from the IET. “It uses a special model of LEDs that can sense the amount of light and you can even make music using this functionality by moving your hand closer and further away from the display.”

Accessories can be connected to Micro:bit using paper clips or crocodile clips attached to its pins.

At the foundation launch event in London, electronic kit maker Kitronik showed how Micro:bit could be used to drive toy cars or cranes using simple interfaces.

The foundation said it will release Micro:bit blueprints to enable enthusiasts to build their own home-made Micro:bits.

BBC Micro:bit infographic

BBC micro:bit infographic

Image credit: Graphic News

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