Thirty-one-year-old Ayah Bdeir wants to inspire a new generation of innovators, and she has the building blocks to do it—literally. Bdeir is CEO and founder of littleBits, a company that sells an electronic toolkit that can teach complex engineering concepts to kids and adults in a fun and simple way.
LittleBits users get access to an open-source library of small electronic modules resembling LEGO pieces that snap together with tiny magnets to create fully-functioning devices. Each “bit” has a specific function—it might create light or sound, have a sensor or house a motor—allowing users to create anything from a flashlight to a fully operational robot.
Touted as “LEGOs for the iPad generation,” the idea for littleBits came when Bdeir realized that while ordinary people interact with technology as much as seven hours a day, most don’t understand how devices work. She blames the “scariness factor.” Bdeir says, “People see electronics as mysterious or even ugly, but at littleBits we think they’re beautiful, and so all of our circuits are exposed. You can see the inner workings of the circuit and how it’s assembled.”
As an engineer and interactive artist, Bdeir saw an opportunity to reshape the way people experience and perceive the devices they interact with daily. With littleBits, anyone, even kids, can create complex structures and see how they function. The goal is to give users the chance to build their own prototypes, stimulating creativity and giving insight into a branch of science and technology that might otherwise seem overwhelming.
LittleBits has begun to make its way into the education system as a teaching tool. Bdeir says the product line is used in more than 60 countries and has been introduced in about 500 schools.
Last month, littleBits released a new build-it-yourself music synthesizer, The Synth Kit, in collaboration with Korg Corporation—a manufacturer of electronic instruments. The kit includes all the ingredients for a handheld synthesizer, including a power Bit, oscillator, keyboard, and speaker.
Prior to the release of the Synth Kit, littleBits offered three kits—a Base Kit at $99, which contains 10 modules, including a light sensor, dimmer, and buzzer; the Premium Kit, including 14 bits and over 150,000 circuit combinations, for $149; and the Deluxe Kit, with 18 bits as well as step-by-step instructions for 15 different projects for $199.
Each collection has a range of open-ended possibilities, with the option of expansion using a “Bit library” to buy modules. Bdeir plans to keep introducing new Bits to enable an even wider range of modules with different functions.
“The most common piece of feedback we get is, ‘We want more bits,’” Bdeir says. “We’re always adding new bits and we’ll continue to do that. We’re also adding new kits, so the library is constantly expanding.”
Since its introduction in 2009, littleBits has won numerous awards including the Popular Science Best of Toy Fair award in 2012 and the gold prize for the International Design Excellence Awards in 2013.
With the recent release of the Synth Kit, it’s easy to imagine many ways littleBits modules can be put to use. Bdeir encourages users to post their projects on the company’s website. She says, “If you make something, document it. Take a picture, upload it and share it with the world and be proud of what you’ve made. We have a growing community doing that now and it’s very supportive.”