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The life of Pi

The Raspberry Pi is a cute, affordable and flexible computer that could be used to make life at home easy or create business ideas
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First Published: Tue, Sep 17 2013. 06 41 PM IST
The Pi is a tiny, affordable, bare bones computer
The Pi is a tiny, affordable, bare bones computer
Pradeep Murthy spends a considerable amount of his time at his London home, reading and responding to customer email, watching TV and listening to music. When not lazing around his home, Murthy is taking people out to explore the striking countryside of Wayanad in north-east Kerala. He is the founder of Muddyboots, a boutique “active vacations” company in India. One gloomy, overcast day, he looked at the Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air in his living room and wondered why he needed to get up each time to change the music on his iPod, which lay docked in the sleek Zeppelin music system. So Murthy ordered a Raspberry Pi Model B, a mid-mobile phone-sized computer that ships without a keyboard or a monitor, for a mere £27 (around Rs.2,700) from the official website, www.raspberrypi.org , or an online store such as eBay for as little as Rs.3,400. After a few simple tweaks, Murthy turned the Pi into a media server that he could remotely control, sitting in his lounge chair, from any laptop, Android phone or an iPhone. Suddenly, he had a vast amount of music he could control from his bed, if he wished.
When the package arrived, Murthy says he was so lazy that he didn’t even bother to attach a monitor to the Pi. “I configured the Pi as a headless server, installing Arch Linux ARM,” he says. It sounds impressive, even a little intimidating. But what Murthy is confessing to is his super lazy nature. “Headless” simply means the computer has no monitor, and Arch Linux is an open sources operating system (read: free) that runs on all major microprocessors such as ARM. Thousands of people like Murthy, with no pretensions of technical aptitude, are experimenting with the Pi, a tiny, affordable, bare-bones computer that can be deployed for a number of tasks at home and in the office. It could become the new Lego for you to play with.
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Pradeep Murthy turned the Pi into a media server that he could remotely control, sitting in his lounge chair, from any laptop, Android phone or iPhone
To make it work, Murthy inserted a memory card into the Pi, from where he could install the operating system (free download at www.archlinuxarm.org ). Murthy says beginners may want to try something like Raspberry’s New Out of Box Software or NOOBS (www.raspberrypi.org/downloads ) that is simpler to set up. With the OS installed, he connected the Pi to his home Wi-Fi network, so it can access the Internet and share files with other devices on the home network. What files? All the files that were there on a 100 GB external hard drive he just plugged into the Pi’s USB port. Then he just tucked the Pi out of sight behind the Zeppelin audio player, and it was ready to go.
The Pi runs software called Music Player Daemon (MPD), which can scan, sort and manage the music stored on the connected hard drive, and create playlists as well. The beauty is that the MPD on the Pi can be controlled (play, stop, forward, back, pause) from a mobile phone.
Murthy went a couple of steps further; he uses the Pi as a receiver to stream content—if he’s watching a video on YouTube, for example, then he can connect to the Pi on Wi-Fi, and use it to play the audio from his Zeppelin speakers.
He also began storing his business documents on the external hard drive and could access the data from any other computer over his home network. In essence, the external hard drive became what in technical terms is called a network-attached storage (NAS) device; a simple home “cloud” server. From being a simple device, the Pi quickly became a handy business tool for Murthy.
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Deepak Karambelkar installed ownCloud on Pi. He can now access his data on the Pi from wherever he is in the world using his smartphone. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Mumbai-based technology consultant Deepak Karambelkar loves this use of the Pi. “How private is your data in the cloud, anyway?” he asks. “The NSA PRISM revelations (the clandestine surveillance the US National Security Agency has been accused of) might have made you wonder if there were better alternatives. Well, the safest bet would be to run your own cloud server, right at your home. And if you have a Raspberry Pi, you can do it for real cheap, too.”
A diehard gizmohead, Karambelkar says he installed ownCloud (free download at www.owncloud.org ) on his Pi. After a couple of tweaks like setting up a password, he had an advanced version of what Murthy created. Karambelkar can now access his data on the Pi from wherever he is across the world using his smartphone. He also put his collection of e-books on the Pi, providing his friends the ability to download from his library. To make it really fancy, Karambelkar installed Cailbre (free download at www.calibre-ebook.com ), an e-book server that creates a library with book covers, recommendations, ratings picked up from Amazon, Google Books, Goodreads, etc., and shows them in a slick interface on any browser. “If the book collection is small, you can even store it on an 8 GB SD card plugged into the Pi,” he says.
Karambelkar loves to mess around with technology, so he went over the top. Aside from turning the Pi into a web server—meaning, he had a website running from the Pi—he even morphed it into a laptop. For this, he purchased a Motorola Lapdock 100. The Lapdock is just a terminal that has a display, inbuilt battery, USB ports, a keyboard, trackpad and speakers. What it does not have is a processor. Karambelkar used the Pi to “brain up” the Lapdock using a couple of adapters to hook the Pi to the Lapdock’s micro-HDMI and micro-USB ports. “The Lapdock has been discontinued,” says Karambelkar, “so it is possible to get them at bargain basement prices on eBay (about Rs.17,500). Wire it up and you have a light, cute, functional laptop.”
Karambelkar has a lot of fun with the Pi and has swiftly progressed to the BeagleBone Black (available on eBay, approximately Rs.4,490), a recent competitor to the Pi.
At the moment, Karambelkar is assisting Sportz Interactive, a company providing live sports scores on the mobile and the desktop. He is exploring the possibility of using the Pi to power displays at sports venues, shopping malls, sports bars and other public spaces.
Mumbai-based Naveen Aranha, CEO, Sportz Interactive, is excited about using the Pi in large numbers, given its low cost and small size. “The Pi also has an add-on camera module, and that opens up the interaction even further,” says Aranha. “You can now create ‘visual loops’ between the fans and what they are watching.” Fundamentally, he is exploring the idea of creating interactive business applications using the Pi.
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Due to the extremely low power consumption of the Pi, Aditya Rachakonda uses it to run all kinds of persistent servers in a home environment. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
How far can you take the Pi in a business environment? Aditya Rachakonda, a Bangalore-based researcher in text mining and semantics who is completing his PhD at the International Institute of Information Technology and is working for Big Data Labs, American Express, has great respect for the Pi. In the past, he has used the Pi as the platform to build remote navigation vehicles using microcontrollers.
Rachakonda currently uses the Pi at home as a server for an interesting reason: “Due to the extremely low power consumption of the Pi, I make sure it is on all the time and this helps me run all kinds of persistent servers in a home environment. These home servers are a very important cost-cutting addition.” By his own admission, a home server, dishing out media, may not be the coolest use of the Pi. But you can see that he will soon bring together the strengths of the Pi—small form factor, low cost, low-energy consumption—and combine them with his academic and professional background—text mining, semantics, Big Data—to create a killer business application.
Arun Katiyar is a content and communication consultant with a focus on technology companies. He is a published author with HarperCollins.
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First Published: Tue, Sep 17 2013. 06 41 PM IST
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