I was a kid in the 70s and 80s when games consoles first started going mainstream – as comical as it may sound to any younger readers, this was the first time you could sit on one side of the living room and manipulate something on a screen on the other side.
Today, as we sit revelling in the graphical wonders of an online Star Wars: Battlefront session, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary and magic-like this seemed but that first wave of video gaming spurred many of my generation to become interested in how the games we played were made.
The advent of home computing allowed magazine publishers to cash-in on the new craze by printing the code for games which you could play only by keying the code into your Spectrum or Commodore.
This initial peek behind the curtain helped to inspire many to pursue a career in games development and today the UK games industry supports 12,100 full-time equivalent posts and contributes £1.4bn to the UK economy.
Yet while the gaming sector is relatively healthy, the UK as a whole has a chronic shortage of people with coding skills – perhaps because few people have ever enjoyed an online banking session or shopping session so much that they wanted to have a go at building the system themselves – and industry leaders are getting increasingly concerned about this.
So poor are the nation’s coding skills that my own meagre ability to edit and add to the code which runs this site is probably enough to put me in the UK’s top 20% for coding ability!
This should be a cause of concern for everyone – without a steady flow of people entering the IT sector, the UK risks dropping behind its international competitors and, worse, having to off-shore more and more of its code development.
Apart from the lack of employment opportunities this would mean for British workers, there are wider security implications in being forced to import the code and skills needed power vital energy, defence and transport systems.
In an effort to the problem, the BBC has partnered with businesses and academics to develop the micro:bit – a pocket-sized, programmable computer which it started delivering to schools last month.
To help ease users into developing for the device there’s a range of online coding tools, the easiest of which is a drag and drop ‘block editor’ from Microsoft.
This editor makes it quick and intuitive to start knocking up some basic code – literally just a couple of components are needed to make the micro:bit’s LEDs display shapes, text or numbers when either of the buttons are pressed or the device’s motion detector is activated by a good shaking.
Here’s the first piece of code I created up for my micro:bit – it displays a smiley face when button A is pressed:
and with some more equally simple code the face can be erased when you shake the micro:bit or replaced with a frown when you press button B.
Scripts can be tested with an online emulator before being downloaded to the desktop and copied over to the micro:bit by connecting the device to your PC or Mac via a USB cable and simply dragging the code to the micro:bit’s icon.
In addition to the micro:bit itself, parents and owners can choose to buy the optional Inventor’s Kit from Kitronik – this includes a tutorial book packed with lessons and experiments, plus a host of add-on components including a fan and speaker which the micro:bit can be programmed to control.
One of the simplest tutorials walks the user though creating the code and assembling the components needed for the micro:bit to display a moon or sun depending on the level of light a sensor detects.
As with learning how to make the LEDs display something in response to a button press, this is incredibly simplistic coding but will undoubtably create and fuel an interest in learning how to do more.
Having played around with both the micro:bit and the Inventor’s Kit over the past few weeks I find it hard difficult not to be excited about the the project’s great potential to foster and nurture talent in inquiring minds.
And while I’ve not had a chance to use one, Kitronik also have a buggy-style robot which uses the micro:bit and a series of light detectors to guide itself around, offering a worthy and seemingly easily digestible insight into how electronic toys and games work.
As for the BBC, obviously it didn’t create the micro:bit on its own, but it does deserve huge kudos for leveraging its brand and pedigree in helping push Brits into computing to bring the whole project together.
At a time when its funding and governance are once again being debated, this initiative is a timely reminder that a properly managed BBC, as it is under Tony Hall, can be a powerful force for social good and an institution we’d be much poorer without.