It's Sean!

UK freelance journalist, author
and writer Sean McManus

Printed from www.sean.co.uk. © Sean McManus.
You are here: Home > Blog Home > Sean McManus's Writing blog

Sean's Tech and Writing Blog

Coding with the BBC Microbit

08 December 2016


I've just spent a bit of time playing with the BBC Microbit, so I thought I'd share my experiences with you. The BBC Microbit is a pocket-sized programmable board, designed for use in education. Originally, it was given out to some children in UK secondary schools, but the BBC has now established an independent foundation to look after the Microbit's future, including helping to promote its use worldwide.

There are many things to love about the Microbit. It has battery power by design, so it's highly portable and even perhaps wearable. The board itself is compact and light, so the only real restriction is the battery pack (2 x AAA batteries). It has easy connectors for electronics projects, and a built-in compass, accelerometer and Bluetooth LE networking. The 5x5 grid of LEDs on the front is a bit more limited than you might expect (on the Amstrad, ZX81/Spectrum and other 8-bit machines, you usually worked with 8x8). But the software features a character set, so you don't have to create your own letter images (as I did with my text scroller for the Unicorn HAT on the Raspberry Pi), which is a huge plus.

BBC Microbit photo

The BBC Microbit. The grid of LEDs is in the middle. The buttons are on the left and right. The bottom is used for connecting to other devices and circuits.

The software runs in the browser, and appears to use cookies to recognise you and recover your 'saved' scripts on your return. That kind of thing makes me nervous, but you can download your scripts (both the source code and the compiled code) to your computer and re-upload it later if necessary. To set up an account for saving your work, you need to be a teacher or Code Club volunteer with an authorisation code.

You have a choice of different editors you can use for creating code on the Microbit, including MicroPython, Microsoft PXT (in beta), Microsoft Block Editor, Code Kingdoms Javascript, and Microsoft Touch Develop. There are also apps for Android tablets and iPads that enable you to send your code wirelessly to the Microbit using Bluetooth. I started with Microsoft Touch Develop, and have also tried Code Kingdoms Javascript and Microsoft PXT. In all of them, I found it a bit harder to get around than it is in Scratch. Some of that might be because I've been using Scratch for many years now, but I thought the interface could perhaps be a bit more intuitive. It's irritating in the two Microsoft editors I've tried that the blocks only appear when you click the button for the block type, so you're guaranteed that every block will need at least two mouse actions to add. Some of the blocks are type-specific too, so there's a different show block for numbers and letters, which seems like unnecessary complexity. It might be a result of there being several layers of language and translation between the user interface and the Microbit code. I think the software will become more intuitive as I use it more, and it's clear that it provides easy access to the rich capabilities of the device. Having a bitmap pattern as a standard language element feels natural and easy to use, especially where the pattern is made up of filled in cells, as in PXT (rather than ticked boxes in the older Touch Develop). I tried playing with the compass but couldn't calibrate it successfully (which involves drawing a circle using the device). It might be that you need a much bigger room than I am in.

To get the code onto the Microbit, you compile it, save it to your computer, connect the Microbit using USB and then copy your file across to it, like an external drive. A couple of times this failed for me, and I think it's because the Microbit will reject files that have spaces in them. That's unfortunate, because if you save the same file twice to your computer with the same name, the second time it has the filename "originalfile (1).hex".

So, anyway, here's a Christmas project I made today using Microsoft Touch Develop, which you can recreate on your Microbit (or using the on-screen simulator) at www.microbit.org. It's called Secret Santa. You shake the device to open your virtual present, and see what you've won. There are ten gifts: five are for the naughty, and five are for the nice. I've had some fun coming up with the gift ideas. It takes a while for the gift to scroll across the screen, so I've made some of them start with the same words to heighten the sense of suspense. Shake the Microbit for another turn. You can press the two buttons for some Christmas messages too. Obviously, you can customise this code to display random messages on any topic when the device is shaken, and you can change how many messages there are too by altering the "pick random" block.

Touch Develop code - contact me if you need help accessing this

More Touch Develop code - contact me if you need help accessing this

For more Christmas fun, check out my Scratch advent calendar!

Bookmark and Share
Permanent link for this post.

0 comments

Scratch Advent Calendar: A new Scratch project each day in advent

28 November 2016


This Christmas, I'll be publishing an advent calendar on this website with a new Scratch project behind each door. The projects are drawn from my books, magazine articles and personal projects and will I hope give you something fun or useful each day in the lead-up to Christmas. Don't worry if you miss a day: you can go back to previous days in the month, but there's a simple check to stop you sneaking a peek at future projects.

Visit the Scratch advent calendar here.

Scratch cat and friends invite you to check out the advent calendar!

If you're looking for inspiring gifts for the coders in your family this Christmas, please consider my books Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps, Scratch Programming in Easy Steps, and Raspberry Pi For Dummies. Thank you! You can follow those links for more information, including free samplers to give you an idea of what's covered in each book.

You can make your own advent calendar using my Javascript advent calendar script.

Bookmark and Share
Permanent link for this post.

0 comments

Download a free PDF sampler of Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps

09 October 2016


Book cover: Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps If you'd like a taster of my new book, Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps, you can download a free PDF sampler of the book that includes Chapter 1 and the table of contents.

Chapter 1 introduces you to Scratch and how you build projects, and includes the Magic Mirror project. This is a humorous twist on the 'cat goes for a walk' project idea, where the cat walks in front of a Magic Mirror that distorts its reflection. This chapter also explains some of the key ideas that are used in later chapters, including 3D Maze Explorer.

If you want a quick overview of what to expect from the whole book, take a look at this 3-minute video that includes clips from all the projects, including the ScratchJr projects and the Raspberry Pi Camera Module project. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

You can also check out my previous blogs about some of the projects in the book:

Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps is available now from shops including these. It has a companion title in my previous book, Scratch Programming in Easy Steps. That book goes into greater depth on how Scratch works and shows you how to build a number of games and projects. The new "Cool" book dives straight into the project instructions, so there is more room to cover more of the fun things you can do with Scratch. I think they work well together, and you can read them in any order.

If you get either book (thank you!) and enjoy it, please consider writing a review on Amazon. It really helps others to find the book. Thank you!

For more information on the book, visit the book's web page here.

Bookmark and Share
Permanent link for this post.

0 comments

Making 3D anaglyph games in Scratch

04 October 2016


The print edition of my new book Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps comes with a free pair of 3D red/cyan glasses and shows you how to make 3D games with them. The glasses make it possible to show a different image to each eye, so you can create real 3D effects, where things appear to pop out of the screen, or sink back into it.

There are three 3D projects in the book:

The book also includes a simple demo that you can use to experiment with depth, and work out the comfortable distances for viewing.

For best results, you should face the screen flat-on. The effect can be reduced if you tilt your head, or view the screen from an angle.

Extra pairs of glasses are easily available online from a wide range of vendors on Amazon and eBay (search for anaglyph glasses and make sure you get the red/cyan ones). You can even upgrade to plastic-framed ones if you want for a couple of pounds or dollars.

If you don't already have a pair of the glasses around, you won't be able to see the 3D effect in these, but below is a taster of what the projects look like. Note that there has been some colour distortion in the video screengrabbing.

Find out more about the book here, and find links to buy it here.


Bookmark and Share
Permanent link for this post.

0 comments

Making games in ScratchJr

30 September 2016


ScratchJr is like a younger cousin of Scratch. It's a free app for the iPad or an Android tablet that enables you to experiment with some basic coding. It's designed for younger children than Scratch, so there is not much text in there, and the blocks are simple symbols. If you know Scratch, it won't take long to get started with ScratchJr. But there are quite a few things missing that you might be used to, such as variables, coordinates (go to a particular position), the ability to tell which sprite a sprite is touching, and more. Basically: a lot of the stuff that you use when making games in Scratch! Of course, it's great for younger children because it removes all these things that are hard for them to understand. But for us big kids, the challenge is to come up with some fun games working within what ScratchJr can do.

I previously made a simple game for ScratchJr when it came out, and you can see my first ScratchJr game together with my review here. For Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps, I made a game called Super Wheelie. It's a sideways scrolling game, in which you tap your stunt bike to jump over the mushrooms in the road. The game has two levels, and a fun "splash!" sequence when you hit a mushroom and get bounced into the sea. If you get past all the mushrooms, there's a sequence where you roll up to your house. You can see a video of this game below.

As you build this project, you'll learn how you can build games, put your own face into sprites (or "characters" as they are called in ScratchJr), how you can record sound effects and how you can use different scenes for the different levels and sequences. As well as pushing the boundaries a little bit on ScratchJr, it provides a good introduction to the app so that you can start making games of your own, even when you can't get to a computer that runs Scratch.

Like my previous book Scratch Programming in Easy Steps, Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps finishes with a handful of short projects you can dive into and tinker with. One of those is another ScratchJr game, called "Baby, I'm a Starfish". In the game you tap a starfish to move it, and have to get it safely to the top of the screen. If it hits another fish or sea creature, it goes back to the bottom. It's a simple but fun (maybe sometimes frustrating!) game. Here's a video. It took me a few goes to get to the top this time, and I did edit out some of the failed attempts!

To find out how to build these projects and get started with coding on your tablet in ScratchJr, check out Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps. It's available at Amazon (UK), Amazon (US), and from the publisher. You can also support your local book shop by ordering it there. Just tell them the ISBN is 978-1840787146.

Bookmark and Share
Permanent link for this post.

0 comments

Making stop motion videos on the Raspberry Pi

28 September 2016


For my new book Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps, I thought it would be fun to do something that uses the Raspberry Pi Camera Module. The project I built was a stop motion studio, that enables you to make a film by taking a series of slightly different photos and then playing them back at speed. My Scratch stop motion project has the ability to edit the film by inserting or removing frames and to add speech bubbles. That means you don't have to get the shooting right first time, and you can add a story.

If you've seen Morph or Shaun the Sheep on the telly, you're familiar with how great the end results can be. So, ahem! By way of contrast, here's my film! I think the motion and expressions work quite well, but I hurried the middle bit where (spoiler alert!) the apple starts disappearing, and it might have been better to use an object that could have legs and walk rather than shuffle. But the nice thing is that you can personify pretty much anything by giving it a face and making it move, as this film shows. I'm excited to see what readers can make using this project!

Find out more about the book here. I believe it's being stocked in WH Smiths, and it can be ordered at any book shop. You can also order online from Amazon, the publisher and other outlets here.

Bookmark and Share
Permanent link for this post.

0 comments

Discover some a-maze-ing Scratch projects!

16 September 2016


Whenever we're on holiday, if there's a maize maze or a hedge maze nearby, we always take a look. Mazes fascinate me.

So when it came to planning projects for Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps, I thought it would be interesting to include some maze games. In my previous book Scratch Programming in Easy Steps, there's a chapter of seven short projects at the end and one of those was a really simple script to enable you to move a dot through a maze without being able to walk through walls. Although it's a short project, it was really popular, so I know many readers share my interest in mazes.

As a result, there are three maze projects in Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps. The first is Maze Maker, which will generate a random maze for you based on a grid you provide it. You can save an image of the Stage, and reload it as a sprite or background, so you can use the mazes generated by this project in pretty much any game. This project was an opportunity to show how you can make more complex programs, and it uses a technique I previously used for my Minecraft Maze Maker, which appeared in Raspberry Pi For Dummies and Raspberry Pi Projects. Here's a video of it in action, drawing a brain shaped maze:

Then, there's a game called Circuit Breaker, which uses mazes generated in Maze Maker. In this game, you have to track down as many bugs in the circuit as you can in two minutes. The time pressure makes it quite a tense game, because you often have to move on instinct rather than trying to trace the entire route before moving. As with all the projects in the book, I've included suggestions for how you can expand on them and one of my favourite ideas for customising this game is to award bonus time when you catch a bug. I'm sure you can think of other things you can do with this project. Here's a video of it in action:

The third maze project is a 3D Maze Explorer, which enables you to walk through a maze. You move by turning left or right and then walking forwards or backwards. The arrow in the top left is a compass that points north. The maze can be randomly generated, using the Scratch Maze Maker project, or you can design it yourself. The book shows you how to get the script working with both types of maze. It also shows you how to add collectables (cakes, in fact!) to your hand-designed mazes, and you can adapt the script to add them to random mazes too. Here's a video that shows me playing the game. At times it might be a little bit confusing because you can't see which keys I pressed and I've gone through it quite fast, but the game feels natural when you're playing it. It starts by scanning in one of the random mazes.

Cool Scratch Projects in Easy Steps is hot off the presses and in the shops now! My previous book Scratch Programming in Easy Steps is also available, and the two complement each other nicely, with "Cool" showing you how to build specific cool projects, and "Programming" going into greater depth on how the Scratch programming language works.

Bookmark and Share
Permanent link for this post.

0 comments

Dip into the blog archive

June 2005 | July 2005 | August 2005 | September 2005 | October 2005 | November 2005 | December 2005 | January 2006 | February 2006 | March 2006 | April 2006 | May 2006 | June 2006 | July 2006 | August 2006 | September 2006 | October 2006 | November 2006 | December 2006 | January 2007 | February 2007 | March 2007 | April 2007 | May 2007 | June 2007 | July 2007 | August 2007 | September 2007 | October 2007 | November 2007 | December 2007 | January 2008 | February 2008 | March 2008 | April 2008 | May 2008 | June 2008 | July 2008 | August 2008 | September 2008 | October 2008 | November 2008 | December 2008 | January 2009 | February 2009 | March 2009 | April 2009 | May 2009 | June 2009 | July 2009 | August 2009 | September 2009 | October 2009 | November 2009 | December 2009 | January 2010 | February 2010 | March 2010 | April 2010 | May 2010 | June 2010 | August 2010 | September 2010 | October 2010 | November 2010 | December 2010 | March 2011 | April 2011 | May 2011 | June 2011 | July 2011 | August 2011 | September 2011 | October 2011 | November 2011 | December 2011 | January 2012 | February 2012 | March 2012 | June 2012 | July 2012 | August 2012 | September 2012 | October 2012 | December 2012 | January 2013 | February 2013 | March 2013 | April 2013 | June 2013 | July 2013 | August 2013 | September 2013 | October 2013 | November 2013 | December 2013 | January 2014 | February 2014 | March 2014 | April 2014 | May 2014 | June 2014 | July 2014 | August 2014 | September 2014 | October 2014 | November 2014 | December 2014 | January 2015 | February 2015 | March 2015 | April 2015 | May 2015 | June 2015 | September 2015 | October 2015 | December 2015 | January 2016 | February 2016 | March 2016 | May 2016 | July 2016 | August 2016 | September 2016 | October 2016 | November 2016 | December 2016 | Top of this page | RSS

Books by Sean McManus

Scratch Programming in Easy 

Steps

Scratch Programming in Easy Steps

Raspberry Pi For Dummies

Raspberry Pi For Dummies

Learn to program with the Scratch programming language, widely used in schools and colleges.

Set up your Pi, master Linux, learn Scratch and Python, and create your own electronics projects.

Super Skills: How to 

Code

Super Skills: How to Code

Web Design in Easy Steps

Web Design in Easy Steps

Learn how to code with this great new book, which guides you through 10 easy lessons to build up your coding skills.

Learn the layout, design and navigation techniques that make a great website. Then build your own using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

More books

©Sean McManus. www.sean.co.uk.