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BrickPi Bookreader 2 interview

A robotic, mechanical reader of printed books that melds together the Raspberry Pi and Lego Mindstorms

Where did the idea of the Bookreader 2 come from?

When the Raspberry Pi camera module was originally released we thought it would be great to show that you can use the camera with some of the Lego robots and that there’s a whole lot of awesome stuff you can do with it. We put something together that was just an arm to turn the Kindle and the camera to read it aloud; we thought that would be really interesting but it got the wrong type of attention. We got a lot of comments saying, “Well there’s already stuff that can do that”. People missed the point that we were trying to show a tour de force with a Raspberry Pi. So we doubled down and decided we just had to put together a mechanical version that would turn pages – just so we could make our point [laughs]. So the first Bookreader did the Kindle and we read a book off of it out loud and people were like, “Well that’s cool, but there’s already software to do that”.

It uses your BrickPi add-on for the Raspberry Pi, what exactly is that?

The BrickPi is a platform for connecting the Raspberry Pi and Lego Mindstorms. So it connects the old NXT, last year’s generation, along with this year’s generation (the EV3) to the Raspberry Pi – so you suddenly have a very powerful and very open Linux system robot which can be configured in a trillion different ways and can build to your heart’s content.

Reading books has never been so... easy?
Reading books has never been so… easy?

Why create the BrickPi for the Raspberry Pi?

The Raspberry Pi is great. I guess there are other Linux systems out there, including TI’s BeagleBone, but Raspberry Pi has two huge things going for it and the first one is it’s the most widely distributed and most easily accessible system. It’s sort of default when people want to talk about SoC systems running Linux. The other thing is the Raspberry Pi foundation and the Raspberry Pi in general has cultivated a huge educational following. That’s been their stated wheel-house – that they want to do education – and that’s what they’ve done and that’s sort of how the community has grown up around it. We like to think of ourselves really as an education company and it’s the best way to learn robotics. Raspberry Pi is behind that and we wanted to be part of that, which is one of the reasons why we chose it. It’s got a very open and active community as well, which ties into a lot of people using it – but the fact there are so many people using it and contributing back to it makes developing new stuff and mashing up other hardware with the Raspberry Pi quite easy because the community had already laid the foundation for us to do that.

How long did it take to develop the Bookreader 2 after the first Bookreader?

Oh, it was a couple of months. We put the Bookreader out just before Christmas I believe, and then the holidays came so we were busy with taking care of logistics stuff and having a holiday. So after Christmas we found a couple of extra hours to do the programming and redo the hardware; it looks really cool but it was a really simple mashup. The optical character recognition software is already out there and there are tons of tutorials on how to get that to read text off of a page and read that sort of stuff, so all we did was mash it up and make the Lego model and we were in business.

Did you have problems with the page- turning functionality via the wheel?

No. We actually saw there were a couple of folks that had done it with previous Lego systems and they’d done it a little bit differently. We wanted to use the EV3 system because the BrickPi is associated with Lego NXT, yet it also works with the EV3, so we just had to make some modifications to it and get it to work. The hard part is the timing in something sort of physical, and I think if we were to redo this again we would have the camera control the motors and have some detection of whether the page is fully turned or not. There are a thousand directions we could take it right now.

What plans do you have for future Raspberry Pi projects and BrickPi?

When we were using the NXT while developing the BrickPi one of the limitations was just to get started with the BrickPi you needed a Lego Mindstorms kit. So it was sort of one our project developments to come up with an easy platform that somebody could use with little to no wiring and certainly no soldering. The camera package that came out last year for the Raspberry Pi was sort of the inspiration because people found ways to hack it – but there wasn’t really an out-of-the-box easy solution where you could just put it together. My dad, who is an old-time computer programmer, wouldn’t touch a soldering iron if you paid him.

There is that barrier for entry where maybe there’s some intimidation and it’s hard to get started. The GoPiGo is a package you can pull out of the box and use nothing but a screwdriver to get started… it opens up robotics to a new set of people, which is what we’ve tried to do – and I think we’ve done that.