Archive for August 2011
Recently I attended the gaming conference Develop 2011 in Brighton. Digital entertainment (movies/music) is something Ubuntu users are excited and interested in. This means there’s an increasing opportunity for developers to create applications that those users want. So understanding the challenges, concerns and opportunities the gaming industry faces and how that might apply to Ubuntu was my focus during the conference.
Perhaps the most immediate thing that struck me is the burgeoning importance of online games. Nick Parker gave an interesting talk on funding development. The slide that stood out the most was one that showed ‘core gaming‘ (think PS3) has now peaked and that online (casual, MMOG, mobile and social) gaming is the real driver of growth for the industry. He pointed out you’re still talking about a core gaming market that’s hundreds of millions of dollars in size but nonetheless the traditional vendors haven’t yet grasped the online opportunity.
Generally, it’s difficult for new platforms to break through into games developers consciousness. At a basic level creating games is risky and expensive so develpoers target platforms with the maximum possible number of sales. To some degree online games offer a way out of this conundrum for alternative platforms: if the browser is treated as the platform then all operating systems have an equal chance. The devil is in the detail depending on the technologies used, Flash is fine from a Linux perspective, WebGL could be great but plugins (such as Unity browser plugin) are more of a problem. Perhaps the best talk I saw which combined these trends was done by Ikka Paananen who talked about the opportunities for immersive play within the browser. If you want to find out what he means try Supercells game Gunshine which works in a browser on Ubuntu just fine – in fact I lost a Sunday afternoon to it!
There also seems to be a lot of optimism about the opportunities for interesting games development: a lot of positive commentary around the opportunities around despite the wider economic conditions. A big part of this was around Indie development, with small teams able to create so much for a relatively small level of investment. A talk by Tony Pearce about raising cash for your game (supported by NESTA) illustrated this, not only was it a great talk but it was absolutely packed with developers.
Reinforcing the positive theme was a very motivating keynote given by Michael Acton Smith the CEO of Mind Candy, the company behind the super-hit Moshi Monsters. First, I’m embarassed to admit that I hadn’t heard of Mosh Monsters, it turns out that if you’re a parent then you know all about them – it’s that big! Of course, he was head-lining because it’s such a massive hit and with a suitably dramatic story where at one point they almost burned out. But, much of his talk’s insight could have been applied to any start-up or group creating new products. I heard two key things, one was that you you should explore the boundaries of your space with creativity, the other one he didn’t say directly but I was struck by how deeply he’d thought about the mechanisms and drivers that power his business. From a pure inspiration perspective the main sense was the essential energy the team brought to the journey as they explored (and continue to explore) creating something for their users. So there it is – explore creatively, think deeply and be energised!
Raspberry Pi is a project to spark exploration, innovation and to create a new generation of programmers by putting a computer into the hands of every British child. That was the passionate vision presented by David Braben of Frontier Development at Develop in a talked labelled “Giving something back”. There are some interesting parallels with the vision One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) had. The radical difference is that with the effects of Moores Law since the OLPC project the Raspberry Pi vision is for a device that costs 15 GBP – that makes it realistic to put one into the hands of every child in the UK!
They showed an alpha last year which got lots of attention – watch it and then we’ll continue:
The starting point for this endeavour is that children aren’t excited by Computer Science in the UK any more and that this has meant a radical drop in the number of University applications. There’s a shortage of precise figures, said David, but it could be as much as a 51% drop since the mid-90’s. He cites a lot of reasons for this, from changes in life-style, curriculum and the mass-media. His conclusion is that a key shortage is a computing environment for kids that encourages programming – a BBC B for a newer generation. The team aims to create a small (phone sized) computer, powered by an ARM chip, which you can plug a TV/keyboard into and a software load with educational software on it. The long-term mission being to provide these free to groups of children with appropriate content, along with management capabilities for teachers.
The bottom line for me is that encouraging experimentation, exploration and creation is a good thing in and of itself. If you want to create programmers they have to start along the journey of realising that you can create as well as consume in the digital world. When I was in school computers were all the rage from an educational perspective and certainly while we mostly played games we also created small programs. Like many others I spent long hours typing out program listings that came in magazines, and learnt rudimentary concepts in BASIC. While I personally took an indirect path into computers I do think these experiences were formative in accepting what was possible and sparking an inherent interest.
Creating a complete computing environment for children and teachers is a hugely ambitious goal. You have to solve hardware, software, content and distribution problems along the way. At the moment the Raspberry Pi team is focusing on the hardware, with an initial developer version due this year. I see the software stack as being a critical portion – you’ll be glad to know that Ubuntu is the OS! It has to be said that although I got into computing with BASIC and a manual I don’t think that’s going to cut it for kids these days: it certainly wouldn’t have cut it for me if there’d been anything like the Net! Moreover, I think we have to accept that the Web is the platform and that the elements of sharing, socialising and interacting are all part of what makes up computing now. So any software stack has to look forward and encompass new elements even when trying to be simple. That said I think the software and languages we have today are a lot stronger and more compelling: whether that’s languages like Python or some of the OLPC environment! Of course, it’s easy for a technical audience to focus on the technology stack but this changes all the time, what’s more important is the content and education contacts.
Clearly, the content will need to address childrens needs at different ages, and working with the education sector so that it fits their needs and understanding is going to be very important. David noted that managing groups of machines was a key need for educators who aren’t technicians. I was struck by the passion and willingness to get involved throughout the room – if that passion can be harnessed it will hold the project in good stead. I’ve love to see Raspberry Pi develop into a full charity with funding from the industry and efforts to work with the education sector.
If you’re like to find out more about Raspberry Pi, and perhaps sign-up for one of their dev boards, then see their site. What do you think about this initiative and on a more general level how can we help get kids involved in experimenting with technology?