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A littleBit of geeky fun

The coffee maker video was made with the very first generation of littleBits, which only had buttons, lights, and pressure sensor. This prototype does not actually heat coffee, but is showcasing the process of prototyping and designing an interaction with the device. But, they're now working on a heating module, which should be out in the next few months, so you can actually heat coffee. Image courtesy littleBits.

Today, technology is prolific in society. A 2010 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation found American children spend an average of 7.5 hours per day using technology devices. But, few know how these devices work or how to make their own.

Now, a New York-based company has designed a tool to help solve this problem, called litteBits: tiny attachable electronic circuits that can be combined to create almost anything quickly. LittleBits are pre-assembled circuits that require no soldering, wiring, or programming, and can simply be connected via internal magnets. Think of it as LEGO for electronics.

Its creators hope these 'bits' will break down the complex concepts of electronics into something we all understand and want - interactivity.

These littleBits, or modules, can be joined by simply 'snapping' them together to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. Any number of interactive projects can be created including a vibrating pumpkin or a coffee maker. An industrial designer even used a combination of littleBit modules to create a smartphone-like device in seven minutes.

If anyone is wondering whether the magnets interfere with the electronics, the littleBit designers have ensured that units are not frequency sensitive, which means the small magnetic field generated will not interfere with the electronic circuit. The magnets are also used to ensure electrical polarity, for safety, and to keep the modules in place so they do not interfere with each other.

Each littleBit unit is a piece of an electronic circuit and each has a different function. They're color coded and divided into four categories: first, the power category provides electricity to the system; second, input components interpret data or their surroundings - like eyes and ears, e.g. a pressure sensor or button; third, output components make audible, physical, and visual changes such as sound, motor, or light units; finally, wire components deliver power and enable communication between bits, for example, if bits are spread out on a table.

LEGO for electronics

The littleBits inventor hopes to make passive consumers of technology into problem solvers and creative scientific thinkers. "There are a lot of interesting kits and products that we get inspired from: construction kits, electronic products; but, littleBits is definitely unique in that it puts the power of engineers in the hands of artists, designers, and kids. However, littleBits are not only learning toys which have a limited life span, but also a powerful prototyping and creative system with no barrier to entry," said Ayah Bdeir, the creator and founder of littleBits.

Bdeir's littleBits make the field of electronics into something 'modular', just as LEGO has for creating cars and castles. But, she said if you were to consider littleBits for modular computing, where processing, memory, and peripheral units can be snapped in and out of place without disrupting its operation, then you may be pushing the concept a bit far. "It's more of a modular approach to physical programming. Each module has a specific function that it performs. Modules take input from the environment, people, and each other and affect the modules after them. In this sense, you can start to create logic and decisions, which previously would only be possible if you were programming a microcontroller," said Bdeir.

This means you can make programming into something tangible. "For example, connecting a temperature sensor module and a timer module with an OR module and a fan module allows you to say, 'if the temperature rises above a threshold OR a certain time has passed, THEN put the fan on. This is very basic modular programming and, in effect, allows you to create very complex things. The goal of this line of products is to keep the modules away from a computer or any programming whatsoever. But, we are working on some more sophisticated modules like screens and MP3 players, which will require very basic programming to configure them," said Bdeir.

That was all Bdeir could say as she was in China working with her suppliers to get the new littleBits starter kit version 0.2 ready for the holiday season. I know what I want for Christmas.

If you're thinking about getting them for Christmas, the starter kit version 0.2 will be released mid December 2011, with lots of improvements and some new individual modules. More information can be found on the mailing list.

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