Less than a year after quitting his job at Digg, Jake Levine turned an idea for a high-definition screen to display digital art into a prototype that landed him $1.7 million in funding, and $750,000 more in Kickstarter dollars. The product is a darling among the tech elite and earned a glowing write-up in The New York Times, among other media outlets.
“I couldn’t have done it without Raspberry Pi,” Levine, the creator of Electric Objects, told Fast Company. With no background in hardware, he used the $35 computer as the brains of his prototype, which he lent out to 100 influential entrepreneurs, technophiles, and artists last spring. He credits that grassroots support as key to his fundraising success.
“From a pure proof-of-concept perspective, the Pi was the only reasonable choice,” he added.
Levine, a self-taught programmer who worked on the company from his parents’ house in Cape Cod, used the credit-card-size computer, an accompanying development kit, and Ada Fruit tutorials to hack together the first version of Electric Objects. It took him about four days to teach his laptop to send an image to his “product,” which at that time consisted of a Pi and a monitor ordered off of Amazon.
“I have no experience with anything remotely hardware,” he said. “On the basis of a few tutorials, a bunch of Google searching, and many hours banging my head, I was able to get this prototype running.” With a few more weeks of programming, Levine had something legitimate enough to show venture capitalists. He plans on shipping the $299 screen to his hundreds of Kickstarter supporters in May of next year.
A few years ago, building a prototype would have been prohibitively expensive for someone like Levine. Raspberry Pi, however, has lowered the barrier for people without a lot of money or know-how because it’s cheap, easy, and stable. The Pi, outfitted with Linux, can be used to run any number of things, and has enough processing power for graphics. Most importantly, it offers access to the rabid Raspberry Pi community.
“When I was first starting Droplet, it was just me,” the founder of the Pi-enabled smart sprinkler, Steve Fernholz, said. Like Levine, he depended on the expertise of Pi users who share their hacks and code on message boards and websites, saving himself time and frustration. “Being able to leverage the Raspberry Pi community was as valuable as the hardware itself,” he added.
Raspberry Pi was created as an educational tool. Concerned with the decline in computer science graduates, four programmers from the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory wanted to create an affordable computer for students to learn the basics of coding. In 2008, they founded the U.K.-based Raspberry Pi foundation, a registered educational charity with the mission “to advance the education of adults and children, particularly in the field of computers, computer science and related subjects.”
Three years later, they released the Raspberry Pi, a green board the size of an index card with various ports like USBs and HDMIs. It looks like a very small computer took off its protective plastic shell.
Since the first version went on sale in 2012, the budget computer has gained popularity, as expected, among hobbyists, enthusiasts, and aspiring hackers. The Raspberry Pi foundation has sold 3 million altogether. But it has also attracted hardware startups, and Raspberry Pi has taken note of the new trend. The foundation noticed an uptick in bulk orders from industrial companies looking to use Raspberry Pi to make products, and this fall will release a version specifically for hardware makers.
“The compute module is going to be very central to our plans going forward,” Eben Upton, one of the founders of the Pi Foundation, said. The compute module is a slimmed down version of the Pi. The theory is that the new form factor will attract even more hardware startups not to just prototype with Pi, but mass-produce products with Pi inside.
For all of its benefits in the prototyping phase, the Pi isn’t ideal beyond that because it wasn’t designed to exist inside hardware; it’s bulky. “When you design a product, you want to focus on the form factor,” Dave Rauchwerk, the creator of the hackable digital camera Otto, said. “If the guts you have to put inside are very large, then the object has to be large.” Although a handful of products, including Droplet, have conformed to the unruly Pi shape, it often results in a bigger, uglier, and more expensive product. (Electric Objects is forgoing the Pi for its final product.)
“When you want to make something that is attractive to consumers you have to reduce the physical volume and that’s the awkward step,” Upton said. “That’s what the compute module has been designed to overcome.”
The newest addition to the Pi family nixes the ports, which are useful to someone connecting their Pi up to a monitor or TV, but not necessary for a smart sprinkler, for example. Anyone who wants a USB port can build it into the product where it makes sense. Without the extraneous add-ons, the new Pi is thin, like a credit card. It will retail for “around $30” in batches of 100.
With the compute module, a product can look as good as Otto, the first device built with the new Pi. (Impressed with the hackable camera, the Pi foundation sent the Otto team the forthcoming device before its official release, something Upton says is unusual.) Compared with the boxy prototypes, outfitted with older versions of Raspberry Pi, the final product looks like an actual camera. It would fit in at Urban Outfitters next to the Holgas and Lomos. The only problem: Otto costs $200.
For that price, you could buy three Holga cameras, or an iPhone. Although 414 people backed Otto on Kickstarter, the product cost is prohibitive. Rauchwerk wanted to make something for around $99, but couldn’t get the price down because of the cost of the Pi.
Still, Upton insists that Pi is a good value. “If you look at the value of the silicon, just for the chips, you’re well on your way toward $30 anyway,” he said. Pi is cheaper than comparable offerings from Intel and HummingBoard. Anything below $30 sacrifices capabilities, he says.
But that deal might not be good enough to make the Pi standard for retail hardware manufacturers. The rule of thumb for anyone building hardware is that a product will sell for three to four times that of material costs, Cyril Ebersweiler, the founder of the hardware accelerator HXLR8R told me. “That would be at least a $100 product if you were only selling the Pi,” he said.
Despite the price, Otto is sticking with Pi as it goes into mass production–a proof of concept for the compute module. Rauchwerk, however, considers his creation “frontier territory,” and isn’t sure other companies (or their potential customers) would support the cost. “You cannot create a product at scale from the Raspberry Pi unless you’re willing to compromise certain things like the price, and arguably the performance,” Rauchwerk said. That later reason is why Levine forewent Pi, and is now using the much more expensive Nitrogen board in production; he can afford it only because of his funding.
Cost might not be the only deterrent. Kano, a computer kit for kids that uses Pi as the brains, is one of the biggest consumer-facing purchasers of Raspberry Pi, having bought 18,000 units so far. Founder Alex Klein says there are long lead times on his orders. He also said that the Pi foundation doesn’t communicate effectively with customers. “I think a lot of us in the ecosystem would like to see the foundation address information, transparency, and helping small companies like us ramp up to mass production,” he said.
As for Raspberry Pi, the foundation is a tiny education-focused charity tucked into a corner of Cambridge–not a behemoth chipmaker like Intel with the staff to match. It’s not a commercial enterprise, and doesn’t necessarily have the bandwidth to support companies buying Pis at scale. Upton denied those claims.
The foundation hopes to sell 1-2 million units to companies like Otto, and doesn’t foresee price being a deterrent. “I think people often imagine they can build things very cheaply,” Upton said, “and then they discover that they can’t.” The development kit, which became available in June, has sold between 1,000 and 2,000 units. “The hope is each of those sales will in the long run translate into volume orders for the compute module itself,” Upton added.