The $25 digital signage player

May 9, 2011 by Dave Haynes

Bob Rushby, whose retirement swan song for Christie Digital was co-inventing MicroTiles, still keeps his hands in technology and is working on something he’s calling Pixelized Light. He flagged a really interesting piece in Venture Beat about an extremely low-cost computing module.

Game developer David Braben, the piece reports, has created a computing device with the aspiration of making it sufficiently powerful to do so but also sufficiently low in cost that philanthropic groups could buy them for children in third world countries.

The device, called the Raspberry Pi, is the size of a thumb drive and runs a variation of Ubuntu Linux, which is widely used in the development community.

“In theory, they could be given away to the child. There would be other ways of funding it,” Braben told the BBC. “They would be able to engage with a lot of things that we are all consumers of but not necessarily creators of — understanding how you put together little scripts that might run on websites and filters.”

Here’s where it gets interesting:

The device has a 700-megahertz ARM processor and 128 megabytes of RAM. To put that in perspective, that’s about half as much memory as most smartphones today, which also sport processors that usually clock in at around 1 gigahertz. So it’s slightly weaker than a smartphone. There’s an SD card slot on the device that handles any storage, and it can output video and other images at 1080p resolution. It has a USB-out port that lets owners plug in a keyboard and an HDMI-out port that can connect to an HDMI-enabled television or monitor.

Braben said he hopes the device will be available to the public in around a year. Based on the components, the device will cost somewhere between £10 and £15, or around $25. It will be distributed through a charitable organization called the Raspberry Pi Foundation to promote computer science in schools.

The aspirations for this program are terrific, but this effort will of course catch the eyes of business people who are steadily looking to trim technology costs. One of the business sectors that will have an obvious interest is digital signage/digital out of home, given the notion of a low cost device with a tiny footprint but powerful enough to drive HD to an LCD.

I have spoken to some very smart people in this sector I know are already fiddling in their labs with low-cost smartphone processors and successfully pushing HD video to big screens. So this is coming one way or the other.

These low cost devices come, of course, with compromises. They will have just a fraction of the processing power of Intel and AMD CPUs and little of the watchdogs and remote management capabilities. But for an out of home company looking to switch out 1,000s of static poster faces, this sort of thing is coming whether it’s by Braben or someone else’s efforts.

The good thing, I assume, is that the effort to put a low-cost computing device into the hands of third-world kids is probably helped along by parallel demand from business, and therefore production volume and broader R&D.


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