It had a pi key!

Posted in Society at 18:32 by RjZ

Thirty years ago, Commodore announced the world’s most popular computer, the Commodore64. I had a VIC20 at the time and the Commodore64 was as huge an upgrade as any gadget upgrade today. The screen had twice the resolution, and more colors; you could program your own sounds, and, with unbelievably laborious effort, one byte at a time, create animated sprites which would be the building blocks of your own, homemade video games.

Kids had game consoles, like the original Atari, or later, Nintendo, and they were fun. The C64 had plenty of games too, and my thumbs were pretty sore after hours of Loderunner, but I learned to type by repeatedly entering in programs in BASIC. I still type commands like RUN or LIST as fast as if they’re single letters on a keyboard. I wasn’t a particularly good programmer, but there was something amazing about getting the little beige box to do things for you. I programmed it to play little tunes on its built in synthesizer and eventually to play tic-tac-toe. I remember sometimes getting so swallowed up in a programming problem I would be thinking about adding features or how do to something new when I was supposed to be doing homework; and this thing was supposed to help me in school!

Still, I was a low-level geek at the time. My own programming masterpiece , a skiing game where a little skier could be moved left and right to avoid trees rushing up toward him from the bottom of the screen, received a little play at school. Other kids were scanning assembly code from cracked commercial games like they were reading the matrix. I think all those kids must be rich now, long retired, traveling the world with their gorgeous wives and donating large sums of money to cure malaria.

But now, there will be a new personal computer, the Raspberry PC, which, like the old C64 requires you to attach it to your own television (and worse, you’ll need an extra old mouse and keyboard). The Commodore was cheap, but this new PC will be available for a mere $25. Like the C64, all you’ll see when you turn it on is a lonely little prompt, probably a flashing colon. That lonely prompt is an invitation; a challenge, waiting for you to turn the lump of bits inside into your own masterpiece.

I want today’s kids to create their own programs, from scratch. Programs that don’t really do much at all. Programs that say “Hello, world.” or print their names in flowing patterns looped down the screen. Some of kids will take this tiny computer and do amazing things with it, maybe making their own robots, or who new devices. I can’t wait to see it.

Except, when I started writing this, I was afraid all we’d never see it. Kids today, and adults too, have so much opportunity to be entertained, they find little time to create. And the remaining creative ones have such a big hurdle to get over. How can they impressed by my little skiing program, after playing Wii sports for a half an hour? How are they going to feel being stared down by that menacing prompt, and the initial, unimpressive results, with an XBOX or PS3 in the other room?

Of course, distraction and demotivation will, sadly, be true for many, but I know, from the literally millions of apps at the Apple and Google application stores, from the music sharing sites, deviant art and flickr, that, thankfully, creativity is not dead. Given the tools, some of us will go on to make amazing things. At only $25, many more kids will be able be able make their own digital magic, even if they are only simple text adventures, or maybe their own version of asteroids.
Too bad. though, the Raspberry PC won’t have a pi key like the Commodore.

That was cool.

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