Steve Jobs said that in the mobile age, PCs would become like trucks:
heavy-duty computers needed only for tough, labour-intensive tasks. But if there is one thing truck owners here in the US like to do, it’s tinker around with the engine.
Few of us have the confidence to pop open the hood of our technology and play around with what’s inside. Some might argue that does not matter. After all, prising open an iPhone voids the warranty and Apple makes it as hard as possible.
But even in the iPhone era, the falling price of computing power keeps delivering ever-cheaper PCs, culminating in 2012 in the Raspberry Pi. This $25 computer the size of a credit card has sold 2.5m units, mainly to people already confident enough to muck about with their technology.
From eight to 80
Now Kano, which like Raspberry Pi is a UK start-up, wants to use the device to teach more of us about the devices that command so much of our attention.
Its $150 (£100 in the UK) kit includes a Raspberry Pi, clear plastic case, speaker, keyboard and WiFi dongle.
A bright block colour scheme, cheery martial-arts mascot Judoka, stickers and liberal sprinkling of exclamation marks all give Kano a kid-friendly feel. But the company says its kit is for anyone from eight to 80. Squarely in the middle of that age range and with as little knowledge of coding and circuit boards as most of those at the extremes, I found the latest kit an non-intimidating introduction to tech tinkering.
I have tested earlier versions of Kano with older relatives who are sometimes fearful of technology and there is real satisfaction and confidence to be gained from building a computer from the ground up.
Kano provides lessons in both hardware and software. The Lego-like instruction booklet (yes, legacy media!) is straightforward and easy-going. “This is your computer’s brain,” it begins.
No soldering required
The Raspberry Pi uses a TV, rather than a standard PC monitor, as its display (an HDMI cable is included). Plugging it in prompts a string of programmatic technobabble, a rain of text, Matrix-style, dancing white rabbits and a bomb that must be defused in 15 seconds by typing a simple line of code. Not only is computing magical, it’s exciting!
It is, however, still computing, and just a couple of minutes later I had to reboot the machine.
Even the seemingly simple task of pinning the speaker to the circuit board had proved too hard for my simple human brain. When Judoka tells you to “choose the pins carefully”, he really does mean the exact two pins in the illustration.
Nonetheless, Kano largely strikes a good balance between abstracting away the complexity and explaining the key logic.
Once the software is up and running, it shifts to a click-the-mouse graphical interface. It is a version of Linux, the free open-source operating system, but it feels familiar enough.
The Raspberry Pi is not sophisticated but Kano handles its limitations well: a chart in the bottom right corner warns if its processor is getting overwhelmed and clicking an icon elicits an immediately satisfying sound, even if it takes a couple of slow seconds for the visuals to load.
Games people play
Kano lets you “make snake” using, aptly, the Python programming language. The instructions walk you through customising the game, so I can create “Impossible Snake”, where the background, the snake and the apples are indistinguishable from each other. Should I wish to inflict this on others, I could publish it on Kano’s version of an app store, where it promises the Kano community’s creations will be available.
Rather than typing text commands in Snake, customising Pong uses “Kano blocks” to teach more sophisticated programming. The invitation to “play Minecrafton the computer you built yourself” is a satisfying one and Kano Blocks can also be used to customise its virtual world.
Kano does a great job of demystifying computing. One day, perhaps, tinkering with a circuit board will be as familiar an activity for parents and even children on suburban weekends as tuning a car engine.
Planet of the apps
What it is
Codecademy, free, iPhone only
Why you should try it
Codecademy’s online programming courses are bundled with Kano, but a simple introduction to coding is also available in this free iPhone app.
The app is not designed to be a single intensive session but delivers lessons in short bite-sized chunks – like a quick game of Candy Crush, but actually useful.
Its aim is to teach the basics of coding in just one hour and act as a gateway to a more sophisticated education that is ultimately better experienced with a full physical keyboard.
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