Q&A: Raspberry Pi Innovation

Orlando, FL-based web app developer and blogger Shea Silverman recently received Kickstarter funding for the latest version of PiPlay, his Raspberry Pi-based OS. Shea and I discussed his ongoing projects, his Raspberry Pi book, and what’s next for PiPlay.—Nan Price, Associate Editor



Shea Silverman

NAN: What is your current occupation?

SHEA: Web applications developer with the Center for Distributed Learning at the University of Central Florida (UCF).

NAN: Why and when did you decide to start your blog?

SHEA: I’ve been blogging on and off for years, but I could never keep to a schedule or really commit myself to writing. After I started working on side projects, I realized I needed a place to store tips and tricks I had figured out. I installed WordPress, posted some PhoneGap tips, and within a day got a comment from someone who had the same issue, and my tips helped them out. I have been blogging ever since. I make sure to post every Friday night.

NAN: Tell us about PiPlay, the Raspberry Pi OS. Why did you start the OS? What new developments, if any, are you working on?


Shea’s PiPlay Raspberry Pi OS recently reached 400% funding on Kickstarter.

SHEA: PiPlay is a gaming and emulation distribution for the Raspberry Pi single-board computer. It is built on top of the Raspbian OS, and tries to make it as easy as possible to play games on your Raspberry Pi. My blog got really popular after I started posting binaries and tutorials on how to compile different emulators to the Raspberry Pi, but I kept getting asked the same questions and saw users struggling with the same consistent issues.

I decided I would release a disk image with everything preconfigured and ready to be loaded onto an SD card. I’ve been adding new emulators, games, and tools to it ever since.

I just recently completed a Kickstarter that is funding the next release, which includes a much nicer front end, a web GUI, and a better controller configuration system.

NAN: You wrote Instant Raspberry Pi Gaming. Do you consider this book introductory or is it written for the more experienced engineer?

SHEA: Instant Raspberry Pi Gaming is written like a cookbook with recipes for doing various tasks. Some of them are very simple, and they build up to some more advanced recipes. One of the easier tasks is creating your user account on the Pi Store, while the more advanced recipes have you working with Python and using an API to interact with Minecraft.

Readers will learn how to setup a Raspberry Pi, install and use various emulators and games, a bit about the Minecraft API, and common troubleshooting tips.


The Pitroller is a joystick and buttons hooked up to the GPIO pins of a Raspberry Pi, which can act as a controller or keyboard for various emulators.

NAN: You are a member of FamiLAB, an Orlando, FL-based community lab/hackerspace. What types of projects have you worked on at the lab?


Disney director Rich Moore poses with Shea’s miniature arcade machine. The machine was based on Fix It Felix Jr. from Disney’s Wreck It Ralph.

SHEA: I spend a lot of time at the lab using the laser cutter. Creating a 2-D vector in Inkscape, and then watching it be cut out on a piece of wood or acrylic is really inspiring. My favorite project was making a little arcade machine featuring Fix It Felix Jr. from Wreck It Ralph. A marketing person from Disney was able to get it into the hands of the director Rich Moore. He sent me a bunch of pictures of himself holding my little arcade machine next to the full size version.

NAN: Give us a little background information. How did you become interested in technology?

SHEA: My mom always likes to remind me that I’ve been using computers since I was 2. My parents were very interested in technology and encouraged my curiosity when it came to computers. I always liked to take something apart and see how it worked, and then try to put it back together. As the years went on, I’ve devoted more and more time to making technology a major part of my life.

NAN: Tell us about the first embedded system you designed.

SHEA: I have a lot of designs, but I don’t think I’ve ever finished one. I’ll be halfway into a project, learn about something new, then cannibalize what I was working on and repurpose it for my new idea. One of the first embedded projects I worked on was a paintball board made out of a PICAXE microcontroller. I never got it small enough to fit inside the paintball marker, but it was really cool to see everything in action. The best part was when I finally had that “ah-ha!” moment, and everything I was learning finally clicked.

NAN: What was the last electronics-design related product you purchased and what type of project did you use it with?

SHEA: At UCF, one of our teams utilizes a ticket system for dealing with requests. Our department does a hack day each semester, so my coworker and I decided to rig up a system that changes the color of the lights in the office depending on the urgency of requests in the box. We coded up an API and had a Raspberry Pi ping the API every few minutes for updates. We then hooked up two Arduinos to the Raspberry Pi and color-changing LED strips to the Arduinos. We set it up and it’s been working for the past year and a half, alerting the team with different colors when there is work to do.

NAN: Are you currently working on or planning any projects?

SHEA: My Kickstarter for PiPlay just finished at 400% funding. So right now I’m busy working on fulfilling the rewards, and writing the latest version of PiPlay.

NAN: What do you consider to be the “next big thing” in the industry?

SHEA: Wearable computing. Google Glass, the Pebble smart watch, Galaxy Gear—I think these are all great indicators of where our technology is heading. We currently have very powerful computers in our pockets with all kinds of sensors and gadgets built in, but very limited ways to physically interact with them (via the screen, or a keypad). If we can make the input devices modular, be it your watch, a heads-up display, or something else, I think that is going to spark a new revolution in user experiences.

June Issue: Vehicle Tracking, Bit Banging, and More

Circuit Cellar’s June issue is now online, outlining DIY projects ranging from an automated real-time vehicle locator to a  GPS-oriented solar tracker and offering solid advice on bit banging, FPGA reconfiguration, customizing the Linux kernel, and more.

June issueA persistent problem typically sparks the invention of projects featured in our magazine. For example, when the campus at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, had a growth spurt, the local transit authority provided a shuttle bus to help students who were rushing from class to class. But ridership was low because of the bus’ unpredictable schedule.

So a college engineering team constructed a mobile application to track the bus. That system inspired the cover of our June issue and complements its communications theme.

The three-part system consists of a user’s smartphone running a HTML5-compatible browser, a base station consisting of an XTend 900-MHz radio connected to a Raspberry Pi single-board computer, and a mobile tracker including a GPS receiver, a Microchip Technology PIC18F26K22 microcontroller, and an XTend module.

The Raspberry Pi runs a web server to handle requests from a user’s smartphone. The user then receives accurate bus arrival times.

Also aligning with June’s theme, we present an article about implementing serial data transmission through bit banging. You’ll gain a better understanding of how serial data is transmitted and received by a microprocessor’s hardware UART peripheral. You’ll also learn how bit banging can achieve serial communication in software, which is essential when your embedded system’s microprocessor lacks a built-in UART.

Recognizing a rapidly unfolding communications trend, this issue includes an inventor’s essay about how the presence of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) in the latest mobile devices is sparking a big boom in innovative hardware/sensor add-ons that use your smartphone or tablet as an interface. Other communications-related articles include Part 2 of a close look at radio-frequency identification (RFID). This month’s installment describes the front-end analog circuitry for the RFID base station of a secure door-entry project.

In addition, we offer articles about adjusting your FPGA design while it’s operating, modifying the Linux kernel to suit your hardware and software designs, tools and techniques to boost your power supply, digital data encoding in wireless systems, GPS orientation of a solar panel, and an interview with Quinn Dunki, an embedded applications consultant and hacker.

The June issue is available for membership download or single-issue purchase.

Newcastle Makerspace’s first rule? Do not be on fire.

1069828_219774724881137_1206270128_nIn Newcastle upon Tyne, located in North-East England, lies Newcastle Makerspace. This is an eclectic group of makers, creatives, programmers, scientists, and engineers. They’ve set up a space to meet, work, socialize, share ideas and collaborate.

Gregory Fenton is a member and wants to tell us a little bit more about what they’re working on.

Location 18 New Bridge Street West, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8AW, England
Members Lots and growing fast.

CW: Tell us about your meeting space.

We have 2 large rooms, one for relaxing, holding meetings and talks etc., and one for working on projects. We also have a fully networked computer room with spare monitors and keyboards for people who bring in their Raspberry Pi. Another room is dedicated to our lathe and laser cutter. There’s a kitchen area so people can prepare meals and make drinks and a well-organized storage rack.

CW: What sort of tools do you have at Makerspace Newcastle? 

  • Oscilloscopes
  • Soldering stations (including SMD soldering using heat)
  • Two 3D printers (both working and being built by members)
  • A lathe
  • A laser cutter (ordered, just waiting on delivery)
  • Computers
  • Bench drills and saws
  • Circular saws, sanders, grinders, and lots of general hand and power tools

CW: What’s on your wish list? 

A laser CNC and newer tables and chairs would be nice additions.

CW: What sort of embedded tech does your group work with? 

We use lots of embedded technology such as Arduinos, BeagleBoards, Raspberry Pis, PICs, etc… for various projects.

CW:  What are some projects that your group has been working on?

We have so much going on, projects that come to fruition and projects just being imagined that I could go on for ever!

  • One of our members is building a large quadcopter from scratch with a 3D camera mounted underneath it.
  • Another is working on a candy machine that feeds the Makers whenever someone tweets to it (give it a try by sending a tweet containing the word candy to @maker_space).
  • Several of our members are building 3D printers of various styles and sizes.
  • One of our members designs costumes for shows, circuses and events.
  • A different member is taking his children’s old baby clothes and making a quilted “memory blanket,” as well as creating wooden toys to give to them now they are a little older.
  • Some of our junior members are learning about programming, interfacing to electronics and relays, and making toys by hand from balsa wood.
  • One of our members is creating a power extension that is controlled remotely using Arduinos, servo motors and a GSM shield to switch on and off individual plugs via text message (SMS).
  • A project that’s being done as a group is a Raspberry Pi media server that plays music and controls other devices such as an amplifier, lights and LED strips. I don’t think this project will ever truly be finished as every completed task leads to “wouldn’t it be cool if we did …”.



What’s the craziest project your group or group members have completed?

Easy. We decided we wanted a laser cutter, went on a members pledge drive and had the money to buy it outright within a week! It is in China at the moment but soon we’ll be cutting out plexiglass and wood like there is no tomorrow!

Do you have any events or initiatives you’d like to tell us about? Where can we learn more about it?

We regularly hold events both in the space itself and in other places in the surrounding area. Check our blog and mailing list from our website for upcoming and past events.

What would you like to say to fellow hackers out there?

  • Always follow rule zero: Do not be on fire.
  • Safety is everyone’s responsibility.
  • Don’t have a space local to you? find a few like minded individuals and set up your own! You can start small (a garage or shed) and expand as time passes and membership increases.
  • If a project interests you, tell the world. Circuit Cellar, Blog, Facebook, Twitter… Spread the word.

Want to know more about what Makerspace Newcastle does? Check out their Facebook and Twitter page!

Show us your hackerspace! Tell us about your group! Where does your group design, hack, create, program, debug, and innovate? Do you work in a 20′ × 20′ space in an old warehouse? Do you share a small space in a university lab? Do you meet at a local coffee shop or bar? What sort of electronics projects do you work on? Submit your hackerspace and we might feature you on our website!

Raspberry Pi-Based Network Monitoring Device

In 2012, Al Anderson, IT director at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, MT, and his team wired the dorms and student housing units at the small tribal college with fiber and outdoor CAT 5 cable to provide reliable Internet service to students. “Our prior setup was wireless and did not provide very good service,” Anderson says.

The 25 housing units, each with a small unmanaged Ethernet switch, were daisy chained in several different paths. Anderson needed a way to monitor the links from the system’s Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) network monitoring software, Help/Systems’s InterMapper. He also wanted to ensure the switches installed inside the sun-exposed utility boxes wouldn’t get too hot.

The Raspberry Pi is a small SBC based on an ARM processor. Its many I/O ports make it very useful for embedded devices that need a little more power than the typical 8-bit microcontroller.

Photo 1: The Raspberry Pi is a small SBC based on an ARM processor. Its many I/O ports make it very useful for embedded devices that need a little more power than the typical 8-bit microcontroller.

His Raspberry Pi-based solution is the subject of an article appearing in Circuit Cellar’s April issue. “We chose the Raspberry Pi because it was less expensive, we had several on hand, and I wanted to see what I could do with it,” Anderson says (see Photo 1).

The article walks readers through each phase of the project:

“I installed a Debian Linux distro, added an I2C TMP102 temperature sensor from SparkFun Electronics, wrote a small Python program to get the temperature via I2C and convert it to Fahrenheit, installed an SNMP server on Linux, added a custom SNMP rule to display the temperature from the script, and finally wrote a custom SNMP MIB to access the temperature information as a string and integer.”

Setting up the SBC and Linux was simple, Anderson says. “The prototype Raspberry Pi has now been running since September 2012 without any problems,” he says in his article. “It has been interesting to see how the temperature fluctuates with the time of day and the level of network activity. As budget and time permit, we will be installing more of these onto our network.”

In the following excerpt, Anderson discusses the project’s design, implementation, and OS installation and configuration. For more details on a project inspired, in part, by the desire to see what a low-cost SBC can do, read Anderson’s full article in the April issue.

Figure 1 shows the overall system design. The TMP102 is connected to the Raspberry Pi via I2C. The Raspberry Pi is connected to the network via its Ethernet port. The monitoring system uses TCP/IP over the Ethernet network to query the Raspberry Pi via SNMP. The system is encased in a small acrylic Adafruit Industries case, which we used because it is inexpensive and easy to customize for the sensor.

The system is designed around the Raspberry Pi SBC. The Raspberry Pi uses the I2C protocol to query the Texas Instruments TMP102 temperature sensor. The Raspberry Pi is queried via SNMP.

Figure 1: The system is designed around the Raspberry Pi SBC. The Raspberry Pi uses the I2C protocol to query the Texas Instruments TMP102 temperature sensor. The Raspberry Pi is queried via SNMP.

Our first step was to set up the Raspberry Pi. We started by installing the OS and the various software packages needed. Next, we wrote the Python script that queries the I2C temperature sensor. Then we configured the SNMP daemon to run the Python script when it is queried. With all that in place, we then set up the SNMP monitoring software that is configured with a custom MIB and a timed query. Finally, we modified the Raspberry Pi case to expose the temperature sensor to the air and installed the device in its permanent location.

The Raspberry Pi requires a Linux OS compiled to run on an ARM processor, which is the brain of the device, to be installed on an SD card. It does not have a hard drive. Setting up the SD card is straightforward, but you cannot simply copy the files onto the card. The OS has to be copied in such a way that the SD card has a boot sector and the Linux partitioning and file structure is properly maintained. Linux and Mac OS X users can use the dd command line utility to copy from the OS’s ISO image. Windows users can use a utility (e.g., Win32DiskImager) to accomplish the same thing. A couple of other utilities can be used to copy the OS onto the SD card, but I prefer using the command line.

A Debian-based distribution of Linux seems to be the most commonly used Linux distribution on the Raspberry Pi, with the Raspbian “wheezy” as the recommended distribution. However, for this project I chose Adafruit Learning Systems’s Occidentalis V0.2 Linux distribution because it had several hardware-hacker features rolled into the distribution, including the kernel modules for the temperature sensor. This saved me some work getting those installed and debugged.

Before you can copy the OS to the SD card, you need to download the ISO image. The Resources section of this article lists several sources including a link to the Adafruit Linux distribution. Once you have an ISO image downloaded, you can copy it to the SD card. The Resources section also includes a link to an Embedded Linux Wiki webpage, “RPi Easy SD Card Setup,” which details this copying process for several OSes.

The quick and dirty instructions are to somehow get the SD card hooked up to your computer, either using a built-in SD reader or a peripheral card reader. I used a USB attached reader. Then you need to format the card. The best format is FAT32, since it will get reformatted by the copy command anyway. Next, use your chosen method to copy the OS onto the card. On Linux or Mac OS X, the command:

dd bs=4M if=~/linux_distro.img of=/dev/sdd

will properly copy the OS onto the SD card.

You will need to change two important things in this command for your system. First, the
if parameter, which is the name the in file (i.e., your ISO image) needs to match the file you downloaded. Second, the of device (i.e., the out file or our SD drive in this case) needs to match the SD card. Everything, including devices, is a file in Linux, in case you are wondering why your SD drive is considered a file. We will see this again in a bit with the I2C device. You can toast your hard drive if you put the wrong device path in here. If you are unsure about this, you may want to use a GUI utility so you don’t overwrite your hard drive.

Once the OS is copied onto the SD card, it is time to boot up the Raspberry Pi. A default username and password are available from wherever you download the OS. With our OS, the defaults are “pi” and “raspberry.” Make it your first mission to change that password and maybe even add a new account if your project is going to be in production.

Another thing you may have to change is the IP address configuration on the Ethernet interface. By default, these distributions use DHCP to obtain an address. Unless you have a need otherwise, it is best to leave that be. If you need to use a static IP address, I have included a link in the Resources section with instructions on how to do this in Linux.

To access your Raspberry Pi, hook up a local keyboard and monitor to get to a command line. Once you have the network running and you know the IP address, you can use the SSH utility to gain access via the network.

To get SNMP working on the Raspberry Pi, you need to install two Debian packages: snmpd and snmp. The snmpd package is the actual SNMP server software that will enable other devices to query for SNMP on this device. The second package, snmp, is the client. It is nice to have this installed for local troubleshooting.

We used the Debian package manager, apt-get, to install these packages. The commands also must be run as the root or superuser.

The sudo apt-get install snmpd command installs the snmpd software. The sudo part runs the apt-get command as the superuser. The install and snmpd parts of the command are the arguments for the apt-get command.

Next we issued the
sudo apt-get install snmp command, which installed the SNMP client. Issue the ps -ax | grep snmpd command to see if the snmpd daemon is running after the install. You should see something like this:

1444 ? S 14:22 /usr/sbin/snmpd -Lsd -Lf /dev/null -u snmp -g snmp -I -smux -p /var/run/snmpd.pid

If you do not see a line similar to this, you can issue the sudo /etc/init.d/snmpd command start to start the service. Once it is running, it is time to turn your attention to the Python script that reads the temperature sensor. Configure the SNMP daemon after you get the Python script running.

The Raspberry Pi’s final installation is shown. The clear acrylic case can be seen along with the Texas Instruments TMP102 temperature sensor, which is glued below the air hole drilled into the case. We used a modified ribbon cable to connect the various TMP102 pins to the Raspberry Pi.

The Raspberry Pi’s final installation is shown. The clear acrylic case can be seen along with the Texas Instruments TMP102 temperature sensor, which is glued below the air hole drilled into the case. We used a modified ribbon cable to connect the various TMP102 pins to the Raspberry Pi.

An Organized Space for Programming, Writing, and Soldering


Photo 1—This is Anderson’s desk when he is not working on any project. “I store all my ‘gear’ in a big plastic bin with several smaller bins inside, which keeps the mess down. I have a few other smaller storage bins as well hidden here and there,” Anderson explained.


Photo 2—Here is Anderson’s area set up for soldering and running his oscilloscope. “I use a soldering mat to protect my desk surface,” he says. “The biggest issue I have is the power cords from different things getting in my way.”

Al Anderson’s den is the location for a variety of ongoing projects—from programming to writing to soldering. He uses several plastic bins to keep his equipment neatly organized.

Anderson is the IT Director for Salish Kootenai College, a small tribal college based in Pablo, MT. He described some of his workspace features via e-mail:

I work on many different projects. Lately I have been doing more programming. I am getting ready to write a book on the Xojo development system.

Another project I have in the works is using a Raspberry Pi to control my hot tub. The hot tub is about 20 years old, and I want to have better control over what it is doing. Plus I want it to have several features. One feature is a wireless interface that would be accessible from inside the house. The other is a web control of the hot tub so I can turn it on when we are still driving back from skiing to soak my tired old bones.

I am also working on a home yard sprinkler system. I laid some of the pipe last fall and have been working on and off with the controller. This spring I will put in the sprinkler heads and rest of the pipe. I tend to like working with small controllers (e.g., the Raspberry Pi, BeagleBoard’s BeagleBone, and Arduino) and I have a lot of those boards in various states.

Anderson’s article about a Raspberry Pi-based monitoring device will appear in Circuit Cellar’s April issue. You can follow him on Twitter at @skcalanderson.