London-based edtech startup, pi-top, has unboxed a new flagship learn-to-code product, demoing the “go anywhere” Pi-powered computer at the Bett Show education fare in London today.
Discussing the product with TechCrunch ahead of launch, co-founder and CEO Jesse Lozano talked up the skills the company hopes students in the target 12-to-17 age range will develop and learn to apply by using sensor-based connected tech, powered by its new pi-top 4, to solve real world problems.
“When you get a pi-top 4 out of the box you’re going to start to learn how to code with it, you’re going to start to learn and understand electronic circuits, you’re going to understand sensors from our sensor library. Or components from our components library,” he told us. “So it’s not: ‘I’m going to learn how to create a robot that rolls around on wheels and doesn’t knock into things’.
“It’s more: ‘I’m going to learn how a motor works. I’m going to learn how a distance sensor works. I’m going to learn how to properly hook up power to these different sensors. I’m going to learn how to apply that knowledge… take those skills and [keep making stuff].”
The pi-top 4 is a modular computer that’s designed to be applicable, well, anywhere; up in the air, with the help of a drone attachment; powering a sensing weather balloon; acting as the brains for a rover style wheeled robot; or attached to sensors planted firmly in the ground to monitor local environmental conditions.
The startup was already dabbling in this area, via earlier products — such as a Pi-powered laptop that featured a built in rail for breadboarding electronics. But the pi-top 4 is a full step outside the usual computing box.
The device has a built-in mini OLED screen for displaying project info, along with an array of ports. It can be connected to and programmed via one of pi-top’s other Pi-powered computers, or any PC, Mac and Chromebook, with the company also saying it easily connects to existing screens, keyboards and mice. Versatility looks to be the name of the game for pi-top 4.
pi-top’s approach to computing and electronics is flexible and interoperable, meaning the pi-top 4 can be extended with standard electronics components — or even with Littlebits‘ style kits’ more manageable bits and bobs.
pi-top is also intending to sell a few accessories of its own (such as the drone add-on, pictured above) to help get kids’ creative project juices flowing — and has launched a range of accessories, cameras, motors and sensors to “allow creators of all ages to start learning by making straight out of the box”.
But Lozano emphasizes its platform play is about reaching out to a wider world, not seeking to lock teachers and kids to buying proprietary hardware. (Which would be all but impossible, in any case, given the Raspberry Pi core.)
“It’s really about giving people that breadth of ability,” says Lozano, discussing the sensor-based skills he wants the product to foster. “As you go through these different projects you’re learning these specific skills but you also start to understand how they would apply to other projects.”
He mentions various maker projects the pi-top can be used to make, like a music synth or wheeled robot, but says the point isn’t making any specific connected thing; it’s encouraging kids to come up with project ideas of their own.
“Once that sort of veil has been pierced in students and in teachers we see some of the best stuff starts to be made. People make things that we had no idea they would integrate it into,” he tells us, pointing by way of example to a solar car project from a group of U.S. schoolkids. “These fifteen year olds are building solar cars and they’re racing them from Texas to California — and they’re using pi-tops to understand how their cars are performing to make better race decisions.”
pi-top’s new device is a modular programmable computer designed for maker projects
“What you’re really learning is the base skills,” he adds, with a gentle sideswipe at the flood of STEM toys now targeting parents’ wallets. “We want to teach you real skills. And we want you to be able to create projects that are real. That it’s not block-based coding. It’s not magnetized, clipped in this into that and all of a sudden you have something. It’s about teaching you how to really make things. And how the world actually works around you.”
The pi-top 4 starts at $199 for a foundation bundle which includes a Raspberry Pi 3B+,16GB SD card, power pack, along with a selection of sensors and add-on components for starter projects.
Additional educational bundles will also launch down the line, at a higher price, including more add ons, access to premium software and a full curriculum for educators to support budding makers, according to Lozano.
The startup has certainly come a long way from its founders’ first luridly green 3D printed laptop which caught our eye back in 2015. Today it employs more than 80 people globally, with offices in the UK, US and China, while its creative learning devices are in the hands of “hundreds of thousands” of schoolkids across more than 70 countries at this stage. And Lozano says they’re gunning to pass the million mark this year.
So while the ‘learn to code’ space has erupted into a riot of noise and color over the past half decade, with all sorts of connected playthings now competing for kids’ attention, and pestering parents with quasi-educational claims, pi-top has kept its head down and focused firmly on building a serious edtech business with STEM learning as its core focus, saving it from chasing fickle consumer fads, as Lozano tells it.
“Our relentless focus on real education is something that has differentiated us,” he responds, when asked how pi-top stands out in what’s now a very crowded marketplace. “The consumer market, as we’ve seen with other startups, it can be fickle. And trying to create a hit toy all the time — I’d rather leave that to Mattel… When you’re working with schools it’s not a fickle process.”
Part of that focus includes supporting educators to acquire the necessary skills themselves to be able to teach what’s always a fast-evolving area of study. So schools signing up to pi-top’s subscription product get support materials and guides, to help them create a maker space and understand all the ins and outs of the pi-top platform. It also provides a classroom management backend system that lets teachers track students’ progress.
“If you’re a teacher that has absolutely no experience in computer science or engineering or STEM based learning or making then you’re able to bring on the pi-top platform, learn with it and with your student, and when they’re ready they can create a computer science course — or something of that ilk — in their classroom,” says Lozano.
pi-top wants kids to use tech to tackle real-world problems
“As with all good things it takes time, and you need to build up a bank of experience. One of the things we’ve really focused on is giving teachers that ability to build up that bank of experience, through an after school club, or through a special lesson plan that they might do.
“For us it’s about augmenting that teacher and helping them become a great educator with tools and with resources. There’s some edtech stuff they want to replace the teacher — they want to make the teacher obsolete. I couldn’t disagree with that viewpoint more.”
“Why aren’t teachers just buying textbooks?” he adds. “It takes 24 months to publish a textbook. So how are you supposed to teach computer science with those technology-based skills with something that’s by design two years out of date?”
Last summer pi-top took in $16M in Series B funding, led by existing founders Hambro Perks and Committed Capital. It’s been using the financing to bring pi-top 4 to market while also investing heavily in its team over the past 18 months — expanding in-house expertise in designing learning products and selling in to the education sector via a number of hires. Including the former director of learning at Apple, Dr William Rankin.
The founders’ philosophy is to combine academic expertise in education with “excellence in engineering”. “We want the learning experience to be something we’re 100% confident in,” says Lozano. “You can go into pi-top and immediately start learning with our lesson plans and the kind of framework that we provide.”
“[W]e’ve unabashedly focused on… education. It is the pedagogy,” he adds. “It is the learning outcome that you’re going to get when you use the pi-top. So one of the big changes over the last 18 months is we’ve hired a world class education team. We have over 100 years of pedagogical experience on the team now producing an enormous amount of — we call them learning experience designers.”
He reckons that focus will stand pi-top in good stead as more educators turn their attention to how to arm their pupils with the techie skills of the future.
“There’s loads of competition but now the schools are looking they’re [asking] who’s the team behind the education outcome that you’re selling me?” he suggests. “And you know what if you don’t have a really strong education team then you’re seeing schools and districts become a lot more picky — because there is so much choice. And again that’s something I’m really excited about. Everybody’s always trying to do a commercial brand partnership deal. That’s just not something that we’ve focused on and I do really think that was a smart choice on our end.”
Lozano is also excited about a video the team has produced to promote the new product — which strikes a hip, urban note as pi-top seeks to inspire the next generation of makers.
“We really enjoy working in the education sector and I really, really enjoy helping teachers and schools deliver inspirational content and learning outcomes to their students,” he adds. “It’s genuinely a great reason to wake up in the morning.”
Here’s one of the improvements Google might want to look into for the Pixel Watch 2: better glue. Android Police spotted a few reports of the back panels of some Pixel Watches just falling off. A few posts on the PixelWatch subreddit have photos of this phenomenon; several commenters say it happened to them, too.
This certainly seems like something Google should cover under warranty, and with the device being less than a year old, everyone should be under warranty. You also have a strong argument if you contact Google support about a device that has fallen apart. The scary thing is this will also compromise the device’s water resistance, and we doubt Google is covering every instance of water damage. Most reports indicate Google is taking care of the problem, but a few users were initially threatened with a $300 repair fee, which was later waived.
Thanks to my excessive sweating (I believe) the glue on the back of my pixel watch dissolved and the back has popped off. pic.twitter.com/ltUQauXC4I
When iFixit tore down the Pixel Watch, it noted the back adhesive was a novel “liquid gasket” the site had never seen before. The report said, “The rear glass appears to be held in place by a kind of liquid gasket that seals tightly, but comes open clean. It also peels off the glass with virtually no residue.” It sounds like Google’s fancy glue peels off a little too easily. Poorly adhered back panels were also a recent problem with Fossil watches, and in the “Gen 6” versions, Fossil acknowledged the problem and said it was fixed.
We all know manufacturers like to build completely fastener-free smartphones, but it’s not unusual to see visible screws on the back of a traditional watch. Some watches turn the entire back panel into a giant screw, with a threaded edge running along the back cover, and the whole thing screws into the watch body. Maybe a real fastener would help the Pixel Watch.
Google Wallet on Android is finally getting ready for your digital driver’s license and other US state IDs. Google says the feature is rolling out this month, and it will slowly start bringing states online this year. Of course, your state has to be one of the few that actually supports digital IDs. Google says Maryland residents can use the feature right now and that “in the coming months, residents of Arizona, Colorado and Georgia will join them.”
The road to digital driver’s license support has been a long one, with the “Identity Credential API” landing in Android 11 in 2020. Since then, it has technically been possible for states to make their own ID app. Now Google Wallet, Google’s re-re-reboot of its payment app, is providing a first-party way to store an ID on your phone. Some parts of the Identity Credential API landed in Google Play Services (Google’s version-agnostic brick of APIs), so Wallet supports digital IDs going back to Android 8.0, which covers about 90 percent of Android devices.
Maryland has supported Digital IDs on iOS for a while, which gives us an idea of how this will work. An NFC transfer is enough to beam your credentials to someone, where you can just tap against a special NFC ID terminal and confirm the transfer with your fingerprint. Wallet has an NFC option, along with a “Show code” option that will show the traditional driver’s license barcode.
IDs are saved locally on your device, but Google lets you remove them remotely from myaccount.google.com, so if you lose your phone, you can still secure your ID. In the full-fat, Android 11 version of the Identity Credential API, Google supposedly has a “Direct Access” mode that can transfer your ID over NFC even if you don’t have enough power to boot up the phone. Google says that will require special hardware support, though.
Reality has not necessarily caught up to Google’s and Apple’s technical implementations. Just like Apple’s announcement in 2021, Google only mentions the Wallet IDs working at airport TSA check-ins, and the support document notes that “you must still carry your physical ID as needed.” For it to actually replace a driver’s license, police would have to be trained and equipped to accept a digital ID during a traffic stop. Ideally, they would have a portable ID scanner/NFC reader because the alternative of handing over your entire phone to the cops does not sound very appealing. Laws and technology rollouts have to happen individually across all 50 states, so it’s hard to track how far along any of this is. It does not sound like much progress has been made, though. IDScan.net, a company that makes digital ID solutions, currently tracks 12 states as having some kind of active digital ID program and another 11 in a “pilot” program.
If you want a portable console that can play old Nintendo Entertainment System games, the easiest option is software emulation, whether you’re using Nintendo’s official Switch app, a portable PC, or some cheap knockoff emulator handheld. For those who want better accuracy than software emulation can provide, there’s always the Analogue Pocket, which can (with current firmware) re-create the NES in hardware using its FPGA chip.
But some purists are unsatisfied with anything other than original hardware—that’s the only possible explanation for projects like the TinyTendo, which goes to extraordinary lengths to squeeze an entire NES into a portable package roughly the size and weight of the old gray monochrome Game Boy. The project is the creation of hardware modder Redherring32, who eventually plans to open-source the project.
For miniaturization projects like this, you often see chopped-up or fully custom-printed circuit boards used with the original chips to contort the hardware into a new shape. This landscape orientation mod for the original Game Boy is a good example. But more drastic measures were needed to squeeze an entire NES into a handheld console, most notably the removal of bulky pins and ceramic that the original chips all use.
“TinyTendo utilizes real NES chips that have been physically cut and ground down smaller,” wrote Redherring32. “A simple run down is that I sand away the bottom of the chip till I hit the die and leads, then I cut the chip smaller with a Dremel. The end result is 10x10x2mm, and surface mountable.”
Soldering the hand-cut chips to a custom PCB creates a fully functional NES board that is “smaller than a Raspberry Pi 3,” though the design also integrates a power management PCB, a button PCB, and other boards for audio and other functions. The console has a built-in LCD screen, charges over USB-C, and plays miniaturized (non-original) game cartridges, though full-size carts could be played with an adapter.
The downside of this project is that it requires the sacrifice of an actual NES to make it work. This prototype was made from an NES with a “very damaged motherboard,” and we would encourage anyone who wants to make their own to harvest parts from non-functional consoles rather than destroying functioning hardware.
Redherring32 is responsible for several other modding and preservation projects, including open source PCB designs for the original front- and top-loading NES motherboards and the “PicoPad,” a functional controller that’s considerably smaller than the connector that plugs it into the NES.