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Analog Aficionados dinner: littleBits Electronic Project Kits

One of my favorite parts of the annual Analog Aficionados dinners is the informal show-and-tell among designers. Among the items people have brought have been obscure and exceptional analog chips, 50-year-old one-inch wafers, and home-made wristwatches, scattered around the tables at David’s Restaurant in Santa Clara. (The next such event is Jan. 31, 2016, see the Analog Aficionados website at www.analogaficionados.org for details.)

The coolest thing I saw last year was something Aficionado Geof Lipman brought, a box of small modular boards that connected to each other using magnets. Geof is the Director of Engineering at littleBits Electronics, Inc., a company based in New York City. I opened the box and soon found the hardest part of getting started was unwrapping the battery, and I was hooked in about 30 seconds.

For the past 50 years, any kids who have shown interest in electronics have gotten some variant of the “100-in-1” project box that uses springs and wires to connect parts into circuits. A great way to begin simple circuit design, but with these project boxes the possibilities exhaust quickly, and the concepts and components haven’t advanced much.

Image courtesy of littleBits

Image courtesy of littleBits

Getting kids hooked on engineering is an important subject, and I wanted to learn more about littleBits. I caught up with Geof a while back to talk more about the project kits and how they’d come into being. He sent me some of their newest devices, and I passed them on to a friend for testing with his three kids, three, six and nine years old, hockey-playing youngsters who are miniature versions of the Hanson Brothers from the movie Slapshot.

The founder/CEO of littlebits is Ayah Bdeir, a thirty-something designer and entrepreneur originally from Montreal. After receiving her undergrad engineering degree from the American University in Beirut, Bdeir began working on new projects while earning her MS at the MIT Media Lab.

Lipman told me Bdeir did several concepts while at MIT, but what eventually became littleBits was the one that really took off. Bdeir completed the littleBits initial designs in true analog startup form, just herself and an intern doing the first work.

The modular electronics circuit building idea wasn’t initially aimed at the education market, Lipman said. “The original concept here is when you’re dealing with designers, industrial designers, sometimes people will be making models that they want to be functional models rather than just a sculpture that they build.

“So she started from the idea that people who don’t understand electronics need better tools, because, for example, they can hook up an LED and accidentally burn it up in a second because they don’t understand what’s happening,” he said. “They started as a way for designers to quickly prototype stuff like lights, sound, motion. It started with around ten designs that were completed before I joined the company. Then they added about 20 modules around the time I joined and I helped finish that batch up.”

The company describes its work as a “library of modular components” that can be used to make a variety of circuits ranging from very simple to complex. The basic kit includes ten modules such as a DC motor, a switch, and a dimmer. More elaborate kits contain more electronic and mechanical items, as well as wireless interfaces to connect with the Internet and mobile devices. The design and construction of the kits is very high end, with prices ranging from around $99 for the basic one to $1,599 for “one of everything.”

An infinite library of over 60 modules and growing. Every module works with every other in millions of combinations, you'll never run out of things to make. Grow your library and expand your creative possibilities. (Image courtesy of littleBits)

An infinite library of over 60 modules and growing. Every module works with every other in millions of combinations, you'll never run out of things to make. Grow your library and expand your creative possibilities. (Image courtesy of littleBits)

A key feature of the modules is the way they connect to each other, something that’s covered in a patent application made by the company. The components only fit together in ways consistent with how electricity needs to flow, and the connections are secured by tiny magnets. Because of this the likelihood of damaging the components or connections, or even of making a bad circuit, is very small.

Many of our Analog Aficionados friends come up with great product ideas that never make it past tabletop or workbench demos, so I was pretty interested in how littleBits was able to generate funding and sales attention. Bdeir leveraged connections she had made at MIT and elsewhere and then showed the initial littleBits modules at conferences and exhibitions. She’s a co-founder of Open Hardware Summit and received early support there and at Maker Faire. (Open Source Hardware Association, Maker Faire )

Lipman joined the company as Employee No. 6 and helped expand the line of projects and modules. The company has been tripling in size every year for three years now and has over 100 employees. Most of the employees are engaged in creating internet-based tools to assist people building littleBits projects and also to support the community of users who exchange videos, information and assistance. The company’s web site lists about 150 local littleBits chapters in 45 countries.

I looked at a couple dozen videos describing things littleBits users have designed, and the most interesting projects are the ones where users connect either physically or digitally to things beyond the littleBits modules. Some of the younger users connect the DC motors and servos to Lego constructions, while others rig projects to connect with cell phones and smart house components.

“As a modern tech company, community is one of the big things that we have to worry about, and we put a lot of effort into it,” Lipman said. “Like a lot of people I try to do things myself, but honestly when I’m trying to get up to speed quickly, I look at what other people have done.” Some of his best product demonstrations have come from watching videos of what users have built, he said.

“If you’re a responsible parent and you can help your child there’s no safety problems with working with it in a mentored context,” Lipman said. “They don’t overheat, we’ve addressed the thermal issues pretty responsibly, they’re hard to destroy from an ESD perspective, partially because of luck and partially because of design. And then we try to keep the corners not too sharp.”

Feedback from the kids was excellent. I found that pretty much any kid can help build and enjoy projects with adult supervision. Sasha, the 9-year-old son of my friend and the self-appointed spokesman, said he enjoyed being creative with the littleBits kits. “My favorite thing is to do the hand buzzer and the tickle machine,” Sasha said. “I like to make my own stuff.”

“I really liked [littleBits] and I really liked how you could do multiple projects with one set,” he said. “I liked the magnet connectors, and I really liked the synthesizer. I did most of the projects in the book, and I would like more parts to work with.”

My conclusion after playing around with the kits, have my friend’s kids work with them and viewing the online info is these kits will do a lot to get a broad range of people into some level of hardware design. A design community that brings in people who might have virtually no electronics experience is a valuable addition to other electronics design communities, such as diyAudio and of course the worlds of LTspice and other design tools. In a software/app/videogame-centric world, a kid actually creating a hardware device is a big step forward.

One useful addition to littleBits’ support of this community, I believe, would be a simplified version of an LTspice-like circuit simulator to get kids into the world of circuit design as they would encounter in engineering classes.

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