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
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.”