How to make a “thing”
Lessons from the founder of @littleBits
My name is Ayah Bdeir, I’m the founder and CEO of littleBits, an open source library of electronics that snap together with magnets for prototyping, learning and fun. Each “brick” has essentially one function — light, sound, sensor, motors, logic—and the bricks come together to form larger circuits that can do anything: from an obstacle-avoiding robot, to a crayon lathe, to an interactive toy.
We have been called “LEGO for the iPad generation” but I’d like to think littleBits is much more, it is a versatile, age-agnostic, gender neutral hardware platform — the most extensive and easy to use invention platform in the world.
Every technology that changes the world usually starts in the hands of experts or large industry, but the real opportunity to affect change in society is when it becomes democratic, and accessible to everyday people.
The mission of littleBits is to put the power of electronics in everyone’s hands. Electronics govern every aspect of our lives, but most of us don’t understand how they work or how to make our own. littleBits wants to allow anyone to be creative with electronics, whether you’re 8 or 88, whether you’re a PhD in engineering, or an artist.
Every technology that changes the world usually starts in the hands of experts or large industry, but the real opportunity to affect change in society is when it becomes democratic, and accessible to everyday people. Take manufacturing for example: a few decades ago, only large companies with big financial and time investments (Toyota for instance) could produce their own products, now with the 3D printing revolution, anyone can design and manufacture on their own, at home. Same for game development: it used to be that only experts could develop their own games or software (Nintendo, Microsoft). Now anyone with 2 weeks and a computer can learn to make their own game. But in hardware, this is still not possible. The hardware industry is a very top-down industry where prototyping times are long, expertise is required, and the field in large part still belongs to experts.
I started working on littleBits in early 2008. I had just graduated from the MIT Media Lab and had a prior background in Electrical Engineering. At the Media lab, I had started to create my own art work using electronics: wearable electronic fashion, interactive installations. A little while after, I realized I was more interested in the tool than the outcome of what I was creating. I wrote a paper called “Electronics as Material” and embarked on a long research to try to make electronics (lights, sounds, sensors) into a material that can be used in prototyping, in invention and design.
My two biggest inspirations were Lego, and Object Oriented programming.
The first inspiration was a big one. In early 50s, Lego had managed to take the cement brick, the most important construction unit in the world, and make it an imagination tool, accessible to every day people. With Lego you didn’t have to be an expert to make a complex structure, you learnt intuitively, and could build more and more sophisticated structures one brick at a time.
The second inspiration was Object Oriented Programming. Software used to be linear, obscure, and thus only reserved for experts. Then C++ came along, it introduced the concept of modular blocks, allowing people to re-use pieces of code written by them and other people, and build more and more sophisticated code, one brick at a time.
How would I do that for electronics? How would I allow people with no background in engineering whatsoever to create complex electronic circuits one brick at a time?
The problem at hand became clear, I had to turn electronics, typically consisting of one-offs or mass produced black-boxed devices, into a contained, singly-focused and (most importantly) modular “brick” that you could invent with. It came down to two problems: I had to make electronics modular, and I had to make electronics iterative.
My initial instinct was to design the system, but it quickly dawned on me that I needed to start from the ground up. I went back to basics: I needed to touch the brick, to feel myself inventing. I made a few rectangles out of cardboard and started playing. I sketched on top of them, how the circuits would connect, how often I would need to break them apart. I kept the cardboard pieces with me for days. Taking them out every time I felt inspired, and imagining that each of them was “coming alive”.
Then I started to assemble electronic components on the cardboard. I devised a technique using copper tape from Home Depot, and would stick and unstick it and create the circuit on the spot. Using this technique I had already created a new way of thinking about electronics, they had become a material.
Simultaneously, I started tackling the other problem. How can this “brick” be iterative, fast to assemble and disassemble, and most importantly, how could it be fool-proof. I searched for connectors that were easy to attach and detach for weeks. I searched every single component catalog I could get my hands on, every electronic website, every hardware store. A few weeks into it, I realized I was too focused on the problem, I needed to break out. The solution was outside of me, outside of the world of electronics. Suddenly it dawned on me: magnets.
It was January 2008, there was no kickstarter, and I didn’t have the guts to raise money even if there was. I didn’t think I had a product on my hands, but I became obsessed. I needed to make this electronic brick, I needed to make electronics modular, there was no way to get it out of my head. Over the next many years, I had given up multiple times in the process, having massive manufacturing challenges, big financial strain, and not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. But I couldn’t help it, I was stubborn and I was obsessive. Every time I stepped away from the problem, I found myself reframing it and thinking about it in my down time
Fast forward 3.5 years, over 120k of my own money, and 27 prototypes later, I had my first working set of magnetic circuits. I had gotten a bunch of press, and orders were coming in: now I had a product, I had customers, and I had a point of view. It was time to start a company.
Today, littleBits is a library of over 50 Bits modules and hundreds of billions of possible combinations. With these bricks you can make things that would other require programming, soldering, and complex microcontrollers. You can make circuits with timing functions and logics that rival the most complex robotics tools. Over the past 2 years we reached outside the choir and enabled people who never thought of themselves as “makers” jump in and create their own gadgets and toys with electronics. No matter if you were a designer from New York or a young boy from Singapore or Educator from NASA, we set out to enable you to make something within seconds: from an electronic doorbell to a fully responsive robotic installation.
Hardware is hard. But it’s not that hard.
Now, the next phase of littleBits is about focusing on the word “power“. We want to enable you to make complex, programmed, connected and powerful things with our electronic bricks. We want to enable everyone to make things that they otherwise would have to be an engineer, or spend months or tens of thousands of dollars to build.
We want to democratize electronics to bring the power of electronics to everyone, so that society can be creative with electronics in the way it is with other world-changing technologies.
Hardware is hard. But it’s not that hard. Or we don’t think it has to be. While you’re thinking of whether or not to make a “thing”, the hardware revolution is happening. It’s happening, and it’s amazing.
So join the revolution and make something that does something.
This article is part of GE’s Dare to Do collection that explores the imagination and curiosity of those who dare to do great things. At GE, we don’t just dream of a world that works better. We build it.