A group of intrepid young Brits have invented a way to make Raspberry Pi projects fun and easy: meet the Tingbot. It allows developers and coders to infuse their projects with creativity. We spoke with Ben Pawle, designer and one of the forces behind the Tingbot, for more details about this intriguing, colorful little box.
The Tingbot in Scotty blue.
How did the Tingbot come about and how can it benefit makers?
Tingbot is a project created by NORD collective. Me and my friend Ken studied Product Design at The Glasgow School of Art and graduated in 2011. After our studies, we wanted to continue working with each other, so we decided to embark on a project together which became Tingbot - a way to transform your Raspberry Pi into a platform for creative applications.
I was working for a design firm in London and Ken was in Glasgow. We initially created Tingbot as a fun way to experience Ting.it - a new way to make personal, playful animated expressions and share them with others. We felt the best way to experience Ting.it would be through a dedicated device, like a really personal link between you and your close network of family and friends.
It didn't take us long to realise the platform we were building could be used for all sorts of exciting projects. We invited others with complementary skills in hardware and software to get involved and join the team: Joe Rickerby, a software engineer who built the ting.it platform and spear-headed our development environemnt Tide, Duncan Smeed (Ken’s dad), a computer scientist who has built Tingbot’s hardware, and Philip Gilbanks, another friend from home who has helped us with some of the technical product design.
We formed NORD collective and continued to develop Tingbot in our evenings and weekends. We wanted to make something that made our Pi’s easy to use and fun to tinker with, whilst looking cool enough to sit pride and place on our desks or in our homes.
The Tingbot built from board up.
What’s the hardware like?
The TFT display is 320 by 240, 16-bit colour depth, with resistive touchscreen and controller. It is connected using the SPI interface of the Pi. The logic of the interface between SPI and the screen controller is implemented in a FPGA which results in high-performance - 25fps - whilst minimising the number of discrete components required. A number of the Pi’s GPIOs are also used to control the display and interaction with the touchscreen. There is a 26-way right angle connector that provides access to the (original B) GPIOs so that any that aren’t used by the display module are available for further interfacing to the Pi by the user.
The button board uses 4 of the GPIOs to sense the button state. This board also provides the means to reroute the Pi supply connector to the rear of the Tingbot resulting in a case with a more ergonomic and uncluttered form factor.
Explain what Tide is.
Tide is our gateway to making apps for Tingbot. We took inspiration from other open-source projects such as Arduino and Processing to make a programming environment that’s as easy as possible to get started.
Tingbot apps are written in Python, which is widely accepted as one of the best programming languages for beginners, and allows you to take advantage of the huge wealth of Python advice and sample code from the community.
We’ve also built a bunch of clever libraries which make writing apps for Tingbot really simple. Tide is designed to grow with you, so you won’t feel out of your depth. Check out our getting started tutorial to learn more.
You can write your program and test it in the built-in simulator. Once you’re happy with your program, select your Tingbot from the drop-down menu, and it’ll be on there in seconds.
For those who are already comfortable in Python, you’ll feel right at home with Tide - we’re going the extra mile with tools, documentation and example code to make the development experience fluid and creative. And because it’s Raspbian Linux underneath, you can unlock the whole power of the Raspberry Pi - the file system, GPIOs, omxplayer, USB devices - it’s all there!
Why Raspberry Pi?
We chose the Pi because it has a fantastic ecosystem and millions have been sold. It seemed sensible to design the Tingbot to complement the Pi and the combination of the two results in a standalone product that can form the basis of any number of cool apps and IoT devices. The Pi is also sufficiently powerful to run a modern OS and support languages like Python. The Tingbot IDE (TIDE) leverages these capabilities and provides a fantastic platform for people to experiment with app design and deployment and, above all, to have fun.
The hardware inside the Tingbot.
How did you track down a manufacturer? Have any issues with that?
A great deal of Googling, emails, and phone calls. Recommendations from other people in the industry were also really helpful in obtaining quotes. We haven’t experienced any issues, but obvious things like communicating effectively can sometimes be challenging when dealing with overseas suppliers.
What’s Nord Collective?
NORD collective is a group of like-minded individuals who just like making things together. We work flexibly with each other on projects that excite us: Tingbot is one of these. Other projects include Mixim, a software tool for remote collaboration between artists and musicians, and Passive Smoking Machine, a fun interactive installation we built for the London Design Festival.
I noticed you started in Glasgow at the Glasgow School of Art. Is there a correlation between makers and art?
Yes I think so - they both require a level of creativity. But I think the fun stuff really happens when you starting working on things with people from totally different backgrounds like engineering and software development. They’re all creative in their own way, but when you put it all together your ideas really flourish. What’s more, you have all the skills you need to make them happen. Which is I guess why we all enjoy working on Tingbot together.
Why do you feel the maker movement is so massive at the moment?
I think there’s a good appetite for it. Publishing platforms like Instructables and Makezine are allowing people to share their creations whilst (relatively low cost) technology like Arduino and Raspberry Pi are making technology accessible. The next push seems to be the learn to code movement and tech education, although there’s still a bit of a void between having the kit you need and being able to do something interesting with it. We think Tingbot and Tide will help bridge this divide.
The boys from Nord Collective showing the Tingbot in action.
A cool platform with a ton of possibilities. The Tingbot has about a month left on Kickstarter. Go check it out and support fellow makers across the pond!