The Piper Computer Kit is a one-of-a-kind computer building kit. Unlike many such kits, this one is specifically designed to be accessible to a younger audience (ages 8 and up), which is not to say it alienates older users. In the box, one finds numerous laser-etched wooden and electrical pieces, as well as brass screws, washers, and hinges. The wooden pieces look quite nice, and on the edges are interlocking ridges to connect them.
One piece houses an 800×460 LCD screen and electrical components. The electrical pieces range from wires, buttons, switches, LED lights, and grids. Most notably, however, is a Raspberry Pi computer which will be discussed near the end of this article among other more technical aspects. Also included are USB cables, an HDMI cable, a phillips head screwdriver, a USB mouse, a rechargeable battery, and a small speaker. It’s worth noting that, in the end, all the essential components can fit within the portable wooden box the user eventually builds.
Now, this may sound intimidating, and it was when I first read about these contents. However, my fears were somewhat assuaged when I took a look inside. Within, I found the components were stored in a very organized fashion. Every piece is labeled, color coated, or stored among its identical counterparts in a labeled baggy. The instructions take the form of a giant folded blueprint which depicts how each section of the device should look at each step, as well as dotted lines instructing the placement of screws and such materials. They reminded me of the visuospatial nature of LEGO instructions, except there were far fewer in-between steps depicted. Sometimes it took a lot of effort to figure out what went where, and pieces did not always fit perfectly together.
Once everything was hooked up, I was ready to play. What I found was a game on a familiar platform – Minecraft! In the game, you are taken on a journey to save the Earth from a cataclysm (with a comedic source), all in what appears to be a modded version of Minecraft. At each step of the way, your character “learns” new abilities, such as how to walk, jump, and place blocks. This is translated to the real world by hooking wires up from a grid in the Raspberry Pi computer and attaching buttons and switches to other components. The sections where it showed what to attach were fairly buggy, and at some points, I had to restart the device to see the cutscene again – it’s pretty easy to skip them by accident. However, I found this to be an interesting integration of the “computer building” aspect with the game.
Generally, the game ran well, though some lag occurred as new areas were loaded in or when tasks were completed. There were also a few glitches along the way (some of which required me to restart the computer and continue where I had left off), but overall I got through them, enjoying the puzzles and quirky story. Eventually, I even unlocked a creative mode where I could play Minecraft on my device without restrictions.
This computer does not just serve as a Minecraft machine. The Raspberry Pi 3 Quad-Core 1.2GHz computer within is fully functional and features several USB ports where one could attach a keyboard. The device has 1GB of RAM, is Wi-Fi capable, and an 8GB MicroSD card. Once it is connected to Wi-Fi, it can be used as a fully fledged computer with its built-in web browser. As a child, this would be an exciting thing to have, especially as a first computer, though the lag and sporadic bugs might make for a frustrating experience at times.
Overall, the Piper Computer Kit provided an interesting experience. The building process was generally straightforward, and the Raspberry Pi computer runs well enough to support the game. However, I would say this kit somewhat missed its mark. As a “computer building” kit, it is more of a box building kit. The computer itself is included as its own part, and the majority of the building work was put into constructing the wooden box and embedding the computer in this box. I would say the greatest strength of this kit is the Piper game itself – it was a very novel experience to add buttons to my computer as I played to unlock new abilities in a game. However, I would still not categorize this as building a computer as much as just hooking up buttons and LEDs. I did not really learn how these parts functioned, or why they functioned the way they did, and I would have liked to seen these fundamentals included as part of the game. Conceptually, this kit is a fantastic idea. In practice, I would say it leaves some to be desired.