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How this Lego-like electronics system allows anyone to build DIY hardware

littleBits allows both kids and adults to build their own DIY devices and prototypes using electronic blocks.

Ayah Bdeir of littleBits speaking at the Web Summit.
Ayah Bdeir of littleBits speaking at the Web Summit.
Image: Web Summit/Flickr

FOR MOST PEOPLE, technology is something that is confusing despite being all around us. While we’re all familiar with smartphones and computers, our knowledge is only on a surface level.

Start throwing around terms like pedometer or the Internet of Things and you will be met with confused looks. Despite how prevalent these devices are, the average person’s understanding of how they work and what lies underneath is still very limited.

That’s the problem littleBits aims to solve. Founded in 2011 by Ayah Bdeir, a former MIT graduate, it’s effectively an electronic version of Lego, where you connect blocks together using magnets to create larger circuits.

Yet while Lego is all about building structures (or just being creative with blocks), littleBits aims to make electronics and building prototype device accessible to all, a task that’s easier said than done.

“The main challenges were trying to develop and create hardware that didn’t feel like hardware, because the idea was we didn’t want to trigger your fears,” explains Bdeir. ”Right now … whenever you show a bunch of wires and a breadboard (a board for creating an electrical circuit) to someone, the large majority of the population will say ‘Oh, it’s not for me, I won’t touch it’.”

How littleBits approached this problem was by breaking it down into individual units and using everyday language instead of jargon. While it also uses bright colours and blocks for each module, it also simplified the language to make each module sound more relatable.

While the terms ’555 timer’ and ‘tactile sensor’ would be lost on most people, giving them human sounding names like ‘pulse’ and ‘button’ immediately makes it more accessible.

Source: TED/YouTube

As well as using layman’s terms, it also breaks down complex electronics into smaller, more manageable components. While LEGO helps you understand structures by allowing you to build (and play) with them, littleBits offers the same concept for electronics.

For us, it’s been about modularity, this idea of breaking up a piece of electronics into basic pieces that each of their own are very understandable. A light sensor, a battery, you understand each one of these pieces and when you start to combine them, you create a light sensitive switch, that’s something that’s more complex, but because you built it from the ground up block-by-block, it becomes easier [to understand].

While you would be forgiven for thinking it’s designed solely for children, the original aim of littleBits was to help prototyping ideas for adults and engineers. The inclusion of kids only came about when Bdeir noticed there was an opportunity to help educate all age groups about electronics, and has found a new home in the classroom.

While there has been a rush towards software and app development, hardware took a back seat which made engineers like Bdeir feel removed.

From that started another movement which looked at how to bring objects back into the fold - Bdeir and a friend co-founded the Open Hardware Summit as one way of tackling the issue – but the core reason was that people need to interact with physical objects as there are certain things a screen just can’t replicate.

“When the rise of the software movement and all the hype around being a software developer and startup [began], a lot of people that came from hardware felt like their lives were slipping away … We started to feel overrun by all these apps and websites and these companies that felt very removed from us. We [engineers] don’t like to think of life as all on a screen or all online and we miss physical products.”

Source: littleBits TV/YouTube

For now, littleBits has helped with this in its own way. Users have used it to create projects for a wide range of areas including music, WiFi-connected devices and home automation, and its ease of use and its universal design means it can be used by anyone to create their own unique hardware.

And that’s the direction hardware is going. Schemes like Project Ara, Google and Phoneblok’s attempt at modular phones which allows the user to pick and choose parts, are gaining interest and Bdeir believes that having this ability is something everyone should have the opportunity to do.

“That’s the goal we’re working towards”, says Bdeir. “In the case of Project Ara, they’re working towards a phone, for us, we’re thinking about every device. Every device around your home, every device in your everyday life, just like you can make your own furniture, you can make your own clothing, you can cook your own food, I think you should be able to make your own electronics and I think we will get there.”

Read: Here’s how homeless people in New York use technology >

Read: This headset helps the blind navigate the city they’re in >

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About the author:

Quinton O'Reilly

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