Ayah Bdeir is on a mission to bring DIY electronics to a wider audience with a collection of building blocks called littleBits. Color-coded into different categories, these circuit board modules can be snapped together with magnets and combined with everyday objects to make anything from a glow-in-the-dark puppets to a bubble blowing flutes to ... whatever your imagination can conjure, and all without any specialist knowledge of electronics or design.
"Why not be able to combine felt with wood and light, or popsicle sticks with sound and motion sensitivity?" asks Bdeir, a TED Senior Fellow and MIT graduate who founded New York-based littleBits in 2011.
Each of the littleBits kits contain a collection of electronic bits that magnetically snap together letting users create device prototypes and fun toys. They do away with the need for soldering irons and wiring and break down complex electronic components into fundamental blocks such as switches, motors, connectors, sensors and buzzers.
"They are essentially physical materials with digital behaviors," Bdeir tells Gizmag. "There is no reason why you should make a choice between being tactile and being digital, between playing with your hands on the floor, or programming on a screen."
Instead of physically programming electronic devices for specific behaviors through connections, bits containing dials and switches allow users to program behaviors more simply. Turn a dial on a pulse bit, for instance, and it'll go faster or slower depending on the direction it's turned.
"You can embed intelligent behavior with roller switches, similar to the switch that activates a fridge light, or an AND and OR gate (logic gates are the fundamental of programming)," explains Bdeir. "We are taking lessons and iconography that we are used to every day from consumer electronics (dials, buttons, switches) and applying them to small components, and giving you the ability to learn on the fly, without programming or wiring or soldering."
littleBits can be combined with other materials such as craft objects and toys giving rise to any variety of mixed creations. Bdeir hopes that the bits will serve as a tool to bring ideas to life. For example, a horse carousel created by littleBit's lead designer Jordi Borras combines paper cutouts of horses with 3 LEDs, a DC motor and a sound sensor that allows the carousel to be activated by a clap.
Shark containing five Bits modules: dc motor module, power module, RGB LED module, slide dimmer module and wire module (Photo: littleBits)
"One of my favorite creations is one that kids are constantly reinventing: the sibling alarm," says Bdeir. "Some kids combine a motion sensor and a buzzer so that the alarm sounds when their brother comes in. Others take it further and put a motorized sign [that says] keep out that just scares their sibling. It’s arguably a little evil but I love that we are taking sibling rivalry into an electronic realm."
Aside of enabling open-ended playtime the bits can be built into art installations. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Store recently displayed 4 foot tall kinetic sculptures made with wood, acrylic and cardboard that were animated with littleBits.
Other creations include a 3-foot shark with articulations that move with the help of a single servo motor and a moving suspended puppet that changes its own direction whenever it hits the ceiling or the floor. Projects submitted by children on the littleBit's site include a ball monster, where throwing a ball on the monster's tongue gets the eye spinning, a Ferris wheel made with egg carton cups and a blower bot for aluminum foil races.
The company is creating a growing library of littleBits and plans to continue building its collection of ready-to-use electronic bits by looking at the technology that surrounds us and distilling it into the most important interactions.
"In an iPod, it was touch sensitivity, so we made a pressure sensor that tries to mimic that," Bdeir tells Gizmag. "In a cellphone, it’s the vibration motor, so we have a vibe motor that allows you to make things shake. The system of littleBits, even though it is very simple to use, is in fact a very powerful and complex electronic system. So there is really no limit to what bricks you can make."
While not revealing full details about the next generation of littleBits, Bdeir says that wireless littleBits enabling one to make creations across rooms are in the works. The company launched three new kits on September 14, the littleBits Base Kit for US$99, the littleBits Premium Kit for $149 and a Deluxe Kit for $199.
Check out the promo video below for more examples of littleBits creations.