Actually Using Your Raspberry Pi, Part 1: Getting a Pi

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28 Apr

Tell me if you have heard (or lived) this story before. Someone you know gets really excited about having a Raspberry Pi. They probably talk to lots of coworkers and friends about getting one and all the things you can do with a Raspberry Pi. Then when they finally get around to buying one they make the rounds to tell everyone again. Yep, that person is me.

But, there is another stage to this that I have noticed with 75% of the people who obtain Raspberry Pi’s. They don’t actually use it. This was also me. I want to walk you through my relationship with my Raspberry Pi 2 (and starter kit).

Getting a Raspberry Pi

A little background; I studied Industrial Engineering at Georgia Tech. I work with software developers every day, I like to keep up with Businessweek and Techcrunch, and I have dabbled in learning to code in the past. I like to think I am more plugged in than your average person to the tech world. I learned a good bit about Ruby, but never mastered the Rails framework. With all that said, I first learned about the existence of these Raspberry Pi things around the start of 2015. Way behind your early adopters.

I let my fiance and her parents know that I wanted a Raspberry Pi in November 2015. But, I had probably been talking about getting one for a good 6 months before that. So I was really excited to get this cool starter kit on Christmas day.

Raspberry Pi start kit image for blog 1

Maybe I should back up and explain what a Raspberry Pi is. Essentially, it is a barebones, small computer that costs $35. A group called the Raspberry Pi Foundation created the first Raspberry Pi back in 2012 with the intent of making learning about computing and programing accessible to those who cannot afford it. By bare bones I mean, no keyboard, no monitor, no mouse, no disk drive, and if you didn’t know about it you would think it is just a chip or something like that. Compared to what most people consider a computer it almost seems like the wrong category.

Anyway, I was so excited. I had a new gadget that I had never used before and I wanted to dive in. I happened to be home in Georgia with my parents and my sister when I received it, so as I was taking things out of the box and trying to figure out what everything did, I also started fielding questions about what it was, and how I would use it. Most of my answers were me repeating things I had read in online articles, but really sounding like I knew all about it.

There is something kind of different about getting a Raspberry Pi that I noticed was not like all the other gadgets I order. Usually when you order something from Amazon or go to Best Buy, you end up with something that you can just start using. Think about your cell phone and unboxing ceremony some many people comment on. And the user experience. Your first Raspberry Pi has a user experience of a different type. It is more like the user experience of something breaking, and you not having a real part to fix it with, so you use duct tape. You fixed it, and it works fine.

Here is what I mean. Here is a picture the type of Raspberry Pi I got (thanks future parents in law!)

raspberry-pi

That black square in the middle is the CPU (it does all of the processing). On the bottom side their is place to slide in a micro sd card. This is the same as the card you put in your digital camera that you can then take out and plug into your computer in order to get the pictures. The starter kit came with one of those that has the operating system on it. BTW, it is Linux. Like I said earlier, this looks nothing like what comes to mind when you hear the word “computer.” So, back to why the unboxing is a different kind of experience. I found myself back at my parents’ house with this thing (and the starter kit), and it quickly turned into game of scrounge up the things I need to use it. Luckily the starter kit had three important things. It has a power connection, a wifi dongle and an HDMI to HDMI connector. The power connection is just the same old power plug that powers all android phones. If you look at the top left of the picture you will see a receiver for one of those. I needed more stuff to just use the thing. I found an old mouse and keyboard in a closet. They plugged into the usb ports without a problem. Then I ran into an issue. There were no computer screens in my parents house that had an HDMI port… So no screen. After getting really creative I found that a TV in my sister’s room did have an HDMI. So I scrounged together all of that stuff and set it all up on a table, and finally got the Pi into a state where I could use it. A command line screen appeared on the TV screen, and I was off.

My first step was to start reading through the starter kit manual. It gave me a lot better understanding of what components the Pi is made of and talked me through setting up the operating system that was on the Mini SD card. A few commands later, the operating system was set up and the MiniSD was turned into my defacto hard drive.

So I started poking around, using the UI and the programs that come standard on the Pi. I got the wifi dongle from the starter kit working. It was really cool. I told myself, “This is awesome, I am going to do so many great things with this!”. I even spent some time getting the case on the Pi. I even formulated a plan. I would spend two hours each night working my way through the little user manual I got in my starter pack. I would learn so much, I would create the coolest hack, and I would impress so many people. This was on Dec 25, 2015. I put the parts back in the box and went to sleep very sure of my commitment to use this new toy.

……..Then 2 weeks went by.  Before I knew it it was January 10th. It was a Sunday afternoon and I ran out of new podcasts to listen too.

So I made a cup of coffee, I got the Raspberry Pi connected to all the things I needed to use it, and a pulled out that user manual. The first chapter was on the components. The second was getting the operating system going. I skimmed back over those. After that there were a number of projects I could do. One was setting up my Pi as media center. I have a chromecast and I was not really interested in that. Another was building an emulator of the old NES game Street Fighter. That sounds kind of cool. Another was setting up a web based camera. There is also a section on programing with Python.

I settled on the Building an IP Camera section. Quick note about the camera. As you can see from the picture below it consists of a ribbon and a camera. It likes to flop around and is not a fan of pointing where you want it to. Take a look, there is no great way to just have the thing point where you want. I found that propping it up on something makes it want to stay just long enough for you to forget about it. Then it falls off.

Raspberry Pi camera image for blog 1

As I follow the Vilros user guide section on setting up an IP camera, things seem to be going well. I am enable the camera. That is a helpful first step. You just need to put this in the command line and press enter.

Sudo raspi-config

Then navigate to camera settings, and select enable. Then I learned how disable the LED. There is a blinking red LED that tells me that the camera is working, but it also emits some light, so let’s turn that off. In your command line type the following and then press enter

Sudo nano /boot/config.txt

Then use your arrow keys to move to the end of the file and add the following on a new line.

disable_camera_led=1

Then restart the pi.

Essentially what we did there was add a command to turn off the LED whenever the PI boots up (turns on). No problems so far.

This is where things really went south for me. The book wanted me to install a program called “Motion”. This program is made to control ip cameras on Linux, and would help me set up the control over IP part. I ran the kind of long command line to install Motion. Then a few command lines to finish the install and move it into a system folder on my Raspberry Pi. This seemed like it worked, but when I started to enter the next command lines about configuring Motion I ran into some errors and responses that did not make sense to me. The book did not have any errors, so what do I do now? I decided to redo all the steps of installing and setting up Motion. Maybe I made a spelling mistake. This did not help. So I went to my smartest friend, Google, and asked it about the issue. I did not get any good answers there. After 2 hours of retrying things, I ran into a blog post that said Motion was not great. I am not sure if that is true, but at this point I was tired of trying. So, that was my first project attempt on my Raspberry Pi. IP Camera project 1 and James 0. I decided it was time to try something else. Tomorrow, I would get home from work and start using Scratch. The chapter on scratch was at the front of the book, so it must be easier. I am always excited to learn a little programing. The next day I got home from work and then my Fiance got me to go to run club at the beer garden down the street. The day after that we went to a church event, the day after that I tired and watched some more “Brooklyn 99” and “The Last Man on Earth”. That week ended, the next week started, and around the time I ran out of new podcasts to listen to 14 days after my failed IP camera project I finally got back to the Raspberry Pi. Read all about that next time.

James Demby
James Demby
jdemby@bandwidth.com

James studied Industrial Engineering at Georgia Tech, and loves going to GT Football Games. In his spare time he volunteers at Big Brother Big Sister in Raleigh, and spends time with his Fiancé exploring downtown. He also likes listening to podcasts, reading books (Michael Lewis rocks!), learning to code, and Raspberry Pi projects.

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