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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Freshly Funded LittleBits Makes Electronics Simple (Really!)

The electronics building blocks company just got a $3.65 million vote of confidence.

  • July 18, 2012

You probably don’t really have any idea how your electronics work. Well, since you’re readers of Technology Review, maybe you do. But you know from experience that most people around you don’t. The lights we switch on and off, the cars we drive to and from work, the computers and devices that power our daily existence–to most people, each of these is a black box, a little stroke of daily magic.

On the one hand, this situation can be viewed as a triumph–technology so seamless and easy to use that we don’t need to worry about how it works. But on another level, it represents a major missed opportunity. When we hide from the world how our stuff works, we fail to engage vast swaths of people who might have had great minds for electronics–if only something had piqued their interest in it. And when we fail to engage those people, innovation and creativity lag.

This is one of the ideas behind littleBits, an electronic building blocks company that today announces $3.65 million in Series A funding, plus a major partnership with manufacturing and supply chain giant PCH International, which will start producing littleBits this summer. (LittleBits, which debuted in September 2011, is the youngest company ever to partner with PCH.) “I’m exited that now we can start taking advantage of this overwhelming response we’ve been getting from the community,” littleBits founder Ayah Bdeir tells Technology Review.

What exactly are littleBits? Put simply, they’re like electronic Legos. The way Legos serve as a means to spark the structural imaginations of toddlers (and grown-up toddlers), littleBits aims to do the same for our latent electronic imaginations. Other companies have attempted to do similar things–Adafruit Industries and others in the do-it-yourself movement have tried to make “making” accessible for wider audiences. But detailed instructions of how to solder things don’t greatly reduce the intimidation factor if you don’t even know how to pronounce the word “solder.” LittleBits gets that.

Like Legos, littleBits makes making things genuinely simple. It’s steadily building a library of its, well, little bits, each of which serve a different function. There’s a bit that lights up; there’s a bit that buzzes; there’s bits with sensors; there’s bits with motors, and so on. These modules snap together using built-in magnets (no soldering necessary!) to form larger circuits. Truthfully, you should just watch this delightful video:

I love technology as much as the next tech blogger, but hardly consider myself a “maker,” despite having written extensively about the movement. LittleBits is the first company that has made me willing and eager to actually roll up my sleeves (probably a superfluous gesture, since there’s no soldering necessary!) and try my hand at electronics prototyping myself. It excites a part of my brain that hasn’t been stirred since playing certain maker-friendly videogames, like LittleBigPlanet or the classic Incredible Machine. Nous sommes tous Rube Golberg.

Bdeir tells Technology Review she wasn’t inspired by those video games, so much as old chemistry sets that once excited the imaginations of kids of a bygone era. (Excessive safety concerns and manufacturers’ decisions to dumb down the sets have taken most of the fun out of present-day chemistry sets, she adds.) “We spend over seven hours a day with electronic devices, and most of us don’t understand how they work,” says Bdeir. “We’re moving more and more toward this black-box relationship with electronics, and it’s not a healthy relationship–these devices run our lives and contain all our data. We rely on them so heavily, and we’re losing this sense of understanding of the basic parts that make them.”

Bdeir hopes to change that. And her aims are anything but modest. “I would like us to be a staple in every household and every school,” she says. “I think we have a big opportunity to change the way kids learn about technology. There’s a big gap between what they learn in school and the devices they play with, and we’re going to be able to bridge that gap.”

For more from Bdeir, take a look her recent TED talk.

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