Telecommunications engineer Guido García misses his grandmother, Ludi, 93. The coronavirus pandemic has prevented him from traveling to Basauri in the province of Vizcaya in the Spanish Basque Country to see her for the past two Christmases. He also cannot communicate with her as he would like because, as he explains, Ludi “doesn’t want any hassle; no Wi-Fi, no cell phone.
Therefore, García, who lives in Valladolid, developed an ingenious device using basic technology for the family to send texts and photos to Ludi. The result is a kind of homemade WhatsApp that includes a small printer, a “mini computer” or Raspberry Pi the size of a credit card, and a SIM card to connect it to the internet. Ludi simply plugs into the mains and waits for the messages and photos to print.
The images and texts are sent through the instant messaging site Telegram through a bot programmed by García. When he described the gadget he was creating on Twitter, over 2,100 people retweeted it, 287 replied and over 9,100 liked the tweet. “I was really surprised,” he told EL PAÍS. “The only time something goes viral; It surprised me.”
In one Twitter thread posted on January 10, García explained step by step how he built this WhatsApp at home so that his grandmother had nothing to do at all. He programmed the bot in Telegram because, he says, “it’s more flexible than WhatsApp which only allows companies to create a bot; it must be approved by Facebook and sending messages costs money. With García’s gadget, a message or photo is sent to the bot, and it instructs the machine to print it.
The Raspberry Pi “is more powerful than it looks,” García says. “It has half a gigabyte of RAM. A desktop computer can have up to four gigabytes, so it has limited capacities, but for this type of application or for home automation, it is widely used because it consumes very little energy, does not make noise and does not heat up.
The SIM card is used to connect to the internet and therefore to the bot. Since Ludi doesn’t have Wi-Fi or a cellphone, this was the easiest way to do this. When someone sends her a photo or a message, she receives it on paper without having to do anything other than pick it up at the printer. All components are stored in a box that once contained strawberries. Now that the project is complete, García just has to take it to her grandmother so she can use it for the first time.
Although 20 hours was García’s goal to complete the construction of the gadget, it took him 40. But gathering all the necessary components was neither difficult nor expensive: “The printer gave me cost around €50, the Raspberry Pi with the SIM, €20 in total, the communication plate that carries the card, €70. I had no budget restrictions, but it can be done for less,” he says.
García looked for components in specialized computer stores and online, and admits to noticing a shortage of chips and components. “There is less stock in some stores where the price has gone up a bit, but components like Raspberry Pi are very common and you can find them in a lot of places,” he explains.
The engineer knows that he is not a pioneer of homemade WhatsApps. He is familiar with the Yayagram, designed by computer engineer Manuel Lucio de Burgos, and says, “I’m not the first to do something like this, although in this case it was even simpler. The Yayagram is a similar idea, but more elaborate as it is not a passive device.
Thanks to his tweets, some Twitter users came up with alternative ideas, and others even asked him to make them a WhatsApp gadget. “There was a great response,” he says. And although no one has yet written to him to say they’ve tried his idea, he’s convinced that “anyone with a basic knowledge of electronics and programming can do it”.