Microcomputing comes home with the FIGnition project

Microcomputing comes home with the FIGnition project

Eric Schmidt’s comment at the MacTaggart Lectures earlier this year that Britain is “throwing away [its] great computing heritage” might have ruffled a few feathers, but the nation isn’t beaten yet – projects like the Raspberry Pi prove that, and now there’s a new contender: the FIGnition.

Designed and built by Julian Skidmore and sold via his start-up company nichemachines, the FIGnition hearkens back to the early days of the microcomputing revolution where British companies like Acorn – which would later birth ARM, one of the biggest success stories in integrated circuit history – and Sinclair led the way in affordable home computing.

The devices on offer then wouldn’t be particularly familiar to fans of modern computing: featuring processors running at speeds measured in the single-figure megahertz range and typically between 8KB and 128KB of RAM, they were simple, basic, and taught a nation to program.

“I really got into computing with Sinclair computers, starting with the ZX80 my parents bought me in late 1980, and I’ve always enjoyed exploring the mysteries of computers: how underneath all the glossy and apparently meaningful interaction, it’s just countless transistors blindly switching one way or another,” Skidmore remembers in an interview with thinq_ late last week.

“So, my interests took me down from Basic to machine code to even designing a 4-bit CPU at the logic gate level at secondary school. Later I studied Computer Science at UEA where we were introduced to the then-revolutionary Macintosh computers which we programmed in Pascal.”

Moving on to embedded computing design – performing work on the first solid-state storage devices for PCs in the early 90s, described by Skidmore as “huge circuit boards you’d ram into a PC that emulated a stunning 3MB hard disk,” and later working on “secret skunk-works web tablets” – Skidmore watched with dismay as the UK education system lost its way.

“I think the rot set in over 20 years ago when schools realised kids weren’t finding programming-based Computer Studies engaging so they shifted to teaching ICT ‘skills,'” Skidmore opines. “It was the wrong solution for a real problem, because these ‘skills’ change so quickly they’re obsolete by the time the kids leave school, and also because it’s just so dull compared with the way children want to use computers anyway.

“I think Eric Schmidt’s right about the UK’s loss of polymaths, our creative/engineering divide and our lack of ability to capitalize on innovation – and the right place to address that is in the school years,” says Skidmore. “Computing, at its heart is about human creativity; it’s about creating worlds of pure thought that map onto our physical reality and abstracting the real world into a digital realm.”

Although not created as a direct answer to that problem, Skidmore’s FIGnition project has the potential to help: like the Acorn Atom and Jupiter Ace before it, the machine boots to a simple programming language – in this case Forth – to encourage its users to experiment with the hadware.

The FIGnition goes a step further, too: supplied in kit form, it asks those who would make use of it to pick up a soldering iron and assemble the device themselves – much as Sinclair’s early products or the iconic MITS Altair did so many years ago.

nichemachines FIGnition microcomputer (revision B)

While it’s easy to make comparisons to the Raspberry Pi project – which uses ARM system-on-chip technology to produce a fully-functional GNU/Linux-powered computer on a single circuit board for under £20 – to do so is missing the point of Skidmore’s creation. With an 8-bit Atmel AVR microcontroller at its heart, and a mere 8KB of RAM, the two are hardly in the same league – despite similarities in price.

“Raspberry PI essentially turns low-cost mobile phone technology into a practical, stunningly cheap and tiny computer. Rightly, it’s captured a lot of people’s imagination. It’s not a simple computer though: it’s as complex as the one on your desk stuffed with hundreds of millions of lines of Linux code: the equivalent of a 2Km high, 40million page book.

“So even though David wants to use it to get kids programming, the machine itself is so incomprehensible he’s promoting MITs Smalltalk-derived Scratch media language instead. I don’t see how it’ll help kids any better than simply downloading Scratch onto any Mac or PC in your house.”

That’s where FIGnition comes in: built around an open-source Forth variant called FIG-Forth, the system immediately loads into a programming environment the instant power is applied on the USB socket. It’s a device which is proving popular with nostalgic computer scientists yearning for the days of the micro, but one which could also prove a major success in schools.

“The best thing schools can do is giving children a thirst to know what’s really going on and giving them the tools to help them realize it. Programming is, frankly mind-blowing – it can equip children to do and comprehend things they never thought they would. Programming is fun and playful in its own right, like doodling,” Skidmore adds.

Described as his “first proper electronics product,” the FIGnition kit is a true ground-up design:

“I basically developed it using nothing more than a desktop computer – a Mac – an Arduino and the equipment you’d use to build one. I had my own home-brew AVR programmer, but no oscilloscopes, in-circuit emulators or logic probes. So really, if you can build FIGnition; you can design something. All you need to do is think clearly, because every problem can be tackled if you keep your cool and reason it out.”

It’s this mantra which Skidmore had to keep in mind during the product’s development, which saw early mistakes nearly jeopardise the project’s chances of success. “I’d crashed out of Makerfaire UK in late February when I found a show-stopper in my prototype PCB: the voltages on my memory chips and processor didn’t match,” Skidmore remembers.

“Miraculously the BBC still noticed my empty stand, so when I agreed to provide the BBC with a couple of systems for their Click TV item it meant I had to turn my buggy circuit with barely working video and USB into an actual computer in under 2 weeks: redesigning the circuit and getting new PCBs printed while writing the rest of the drivers and programming language; and simultaneously preparing to get married the Saturday after. I hadn’t pulled all night programming marathons since University, but my fiancée was incredibly supportive and understanding – I can’t thank her enough for that.”

That tale of all-night coding and issues with a malfunctioning prototype placing a potential PR coup with the BBC at risk may seem familiar to some: back in the early days of Acorn Computers, the company nearly missed out on a deal to produce a microcomputer for the BBC’s upcoming home computing programme – a deal which was only saved by a literal last-minute modification to the hardware as the BBC executives were climbing the stairs to the office.

Since then, Skidmore’s sold around 300 FIGnition kits. “Most owners are just starting to explore it or trying to find time to build theirs,” he admits, “but FIGnition is like an early 80s micro – so it can basically do what they could do with 8Kb of RAM and 512Kb of storage. I’ve heard you could save the world with an 8-bit computer, so we probably haven’t got to its limits yet,” Skidmore adds, referring to a presentation given by Braddock Gaskill at an SVGLUG meeting last year.

While it’s tempting to push forward with the design and add more power, that’s a trap Skidmore is keen to avoid. “I love the FIGnition concept of a computer that’s genuinely easy to build, code and understand and I honestly don’t want to lose sight of that.

“That’s kinda the point: to know you’ve actually built your own, real computer so you’re more capable than you imagined. So it’s fine if people get inspired by FIGnition, play with it for a while and outgrow it – it’s not a lifestyle choice,” jokes Skidmore.

“Currently, I’m working hard to get the FIGnition firmware up to 1.0.0; implementing bitmapped graphics, vastly improving its editor and perhaps adding floating point arithmetic. Then maybe I’ll refine it to deal with any real inadequacies.

“Mostly I try not to get distracted from my ultimate goal, which is to turn nichemachines from a bedroom startup into a genuine technology cooperative – because Eric Schmidt is right, how can the UK make the most of its innovative culture and sustain it in our increasingly global, open-sourced society? I think it all points to cooperatives – and we invented those, too.”

More information on nichemachine’s FIGnition is available on the project homepage, along with details for ordering a kit to build your own.

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