A new version of the pocket-sized BBC micro:bit computer is coming to schools worldwide, packed with new features designed to keep young students up-to-date with the latest hot trends in technology.
New hardware will help young coders make experiments with artificial intelligence, and build applications running machine-learning systems. The micro:bit 2.0 also includes, for the first time, a built-in speaker and microphone, so that sound-based projects no longer have to be connected to exterior audio systems – while also letting the device respond and react to sounds like clapping.
And in a nod to big tech and the industry's privacy headaches, an LED will flash to make it clear when the microphone is on and sensing sound, to encourage young users to reflect on the pervasiveness of listening devices.
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"We want to support teachers teaching or taking their first steps with digital creativity and coding," Gareth Stockdale, CEO of the micro:bit educational foundation, told ZDNet.
"So, listening to what teachers would find useful was really important, and making and creating with sounds always came out at the top. That's why we worked on playful sounds and personality for the micro:bit, not just monotone beeps and buzzes."
Available from mid-November 2020, the micro:bit's new features are coming four years after the first iteration of the device was released as part of an effort to help children get to grips with basic programming skills.
A 4x5-centimetre computer complete with two programmable buttons, LEDs, and I/O rings to connect to other objects, the first micro:bit launched in 2016 with motion detection, a built-in compass and Bluetooth technology. The goal was to enable children with no prior knowledge of computing to easily code the computer with something simple in seconds, using a dedicated website where they could simulate their idea before transferring it to the micro:bit.
As an exploratory device designed to initiate young users to the basics of programming, the micro:bit is meant to run fairly simple applications. For example, children can set up an alarm to go off when the device moves, to place on top of something precious, or create a stopwatch thanks to the computer's LEDs.
The new version of the pocket computer will continue to support the same features as its predecessor, but will include double the amount of flash storage, four times the speed, and eight times the RAM compared to the original.
Thanks to this additional compute power, the new micro:bit will be able to support AI and machine-learning applications. For example, early experiments showed that it was possible to embed voice-activation in the device, based on the recognition of custom keywords; as well as to train a model to recognise certain gestures, which means users could control the computer by tilting their hand or flicking their wrist.
"It's clear that 'intelligent machines' and learning algorithms are playing an increasingly significant role in everyone's lives," said Stockdale, "and our goal with the micro:bit has always been to help expose and simplify the technology that people use everyday and that affects their lives, to ensure students know they can achieve an understanding or mastery of that technology.
Stockdale pointed to various projects that the new features have already enabled, including an alarm that warns users when their plant is dry, or a virtual set of "pitch pipes" to help tune a musical instrument.
The new micro:bit will likely be welcomed by teachers and students, among whom the computer has so far proven popular. When it launched in 2016, the micro:bit was distributed for free to year seven students in the UK, and has since expanded its reach significantly.
Priced at less than £15 ($19.60), the device has generated sustained interest among schools and parents. According to the micro:bit educational foundation, 25 million children are currently using the computer in over 60 countries, often as part of nation-wide educational programmes.
A survey released by the BBC, which is a key partner for the project, only one year after the micro:bit's first version launched, showed that 90% of 11 to 12 year-olds who received the device said it helped to show them that anyone can code.
The micro:bit is often compared to the equally low-cost Raspberry Pi, a well-established mini-computer that comes with a $35 (£27) price tag and a similar spiel: to provide simplified and affordable hardware to developers who are experimenting with basic programming.
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But while the Raspberry Pi runs Linux and Windows 10, and can be programmed directly, the micro:bit doesn't run a full operating system. Code for the computer has to be written elsewhere and compiled.
The two technologies don't cater for the exact same needs, therefore. The micro:bit teaches the basic building blocks of coding, often for younger children; the Pi, for its part, is designed for more advanced computing, and can be used by adults and younger users alike.
Since Raspberry Pi devices started selling in 2012, developers have bought 30 million units of the mini-computer. There is clearly space for both pocket computers to co-exist in the developer market.
"We love the Raspberry Pi and think it's an amazing piece of kit," said Stockdale. "But the devices are completely different, aimed at different audiences for different purposes. We think of the micro:bit as a gateway into the Pi, a way for more children to take their first steps and then eventually graduate onto other devices such as the Raspberry Pi."
The micro:bit educational foundation confirmed that the new version of the micro:bit will come at the same price as its predecessor when it launches next month.