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How can you get into physical computing?

Discover the pathways into physical computing.
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As we have seen, physical computing enables us to easily create new digital devices that have a human perspective. Although sometimes created just for fun, they are often created to solve specific real world problems.
Knowledge and skills in physical computing therefore opens avenues to careers in many areas that combine digital innovation with human interaction. Three key areas where this can be observed are in the fields of education, product prototyping and the Internet of Things.

Education

There is global acceptance that the “digital economy” (commercial work involving digital technologies) will play a highly significant role for most countries in the future. Governments therefore recognise that future generations of people will require advanced digital skills to contribute to that economy.
Physical computing has been proven to be effective at inspiring children and teachers to develop such an interest in Science, Technology Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) subjects. In fact, the BBC micro:bit was designed primarily for education, and this device alone now has over four million devices worldwide and state sponsored national deployments in five countries. Such global adoption has created a broad demand for professional job roles in a number of related sectors:
  • There is an ongoing shortage of teachers with the ability to teach STEAM subjects and Physical Computing experience is seen as a differentiator in the market. The UK provides sponsored training for computing teachers due to this shortage. [1]
  • Strategic initiatives such as the UK’s £84 million National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE) provide teaching resources, training, events and online courses to schools. These provide fulfilling careers in the creation and delivery of such content. The Raspberry Pi Foundation plays a core role in the NCCE. [2]
  • Education Technology companies (such as Kitronik, Pimoroni and Adafruit) have grown to meet the demand for packaged Physical Computing projects and peripherals. Such organisations welcome collaborations, and willingly broker the sales and distribution of any projects and peripherals you might create. Alternatively, with the scale and scope of global education, there is also space to create your own startup!

Product Design and Prototyping

Physical computing provides an inexpensive way to create prototypes. Devices like the Arduino and Raspberry Pi are therefore now widely used to prototype bespoke solutions to real-world products. From artistic installations to accessibility technology that enable inclusivity [3], there is great demand to fund and innovation:
  • Regional makerspaces provide facilities for the fabrication and testing of physical computing devices. These are both available to use if you have an entrepreneurial idea, but also provide direct employment in the form of technical assistants, developers and managers.
  • Commercial design studios provide highly collaborative organisations that make use of Physical Computing to enable concepts and solutions to their customers needs. You can see an example video below from DesignIt and WiPro digital of London, highlighting how technologies (in this case a BBC micro:bit) are used to create working design prototypes. [4]
  • Crowd sourced funding is often available for strong product concepts in the physical computing field. Organisations such as Kickstarter can often be used to fund startups to create prototypes and startups.

Internet of Things applications

As we’ll find out in the next steps, some applications of physical computing are now being realised on a grand scale. Devices capable of sensing and interacting with the physical world are being deployed across industrial complexes, cities and even entire countries to monitor and react to physical phenomena on an unprecedented scale.
City infrastructures are being created with real-time pollution monitoring. Digital healthcare and home automation systems can be installed into home. This provides the sick and elderly with effective healthcare and improves their quality of life when they might otherwise need to be in a hospital. Our factories, warehouses and even supermarkets continue to be augmented with technology to improve their efficiency and usability through automatic tracking of the supply chain. All of these application domains rely on the design and implementation of simple yet highly usable embedded systems – like those we build with physical computing.

Next steps

Many of the exciting job roles in physical computing require at least some level of advanced study. However, there are many opportunities to gain this experience through further courses, including:

References

1. Gov.uk: Tech experts to provide National Centre for Computing Education
2. NCCE: Teach Computing
3. BBC News: Dad builds Nintendo games controller for disabled daughter
4. Designit x Totem
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Introduction to Physical Computing

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