Saturday, July 26, 2014

Little Bit of Information About LittleBits

So I'm pretty sure everyone reading this blog knows what the Internet of Things (IoT) is. Anyone who likes to use or read about microcontrollers (MCUs) has probably read a couple news stories about the IoT or at least about how some microcontroller is being used in the IoT. The topic of tonight's blog is littleBits, which are now "an easy and open way to contribute to the Internet of Things without wasting time prototyping devices from scratch."

littleBits circuit with module snapped and wired together
In addition to that preceding description of littleBits, the July 23 Engadget article about these modular electronic marvels says:
"The magnetic, interconnecting circuit boards that make up LittleBits' library of electronic modules make it easy to build all sorts of neat (and noisy) devices with almost no technical knowledge at LittleBits is announcing the Cloud Bit, a new module that, as company CEO and founder Ayah Bdeir puts it, allows builders to "just add internet" to almost anything...More complex modules -- like the Arduino module and today's WiFi-enabled Cloud Bit -- raise the ceiling of complexity for potential LittleBits projects. It's her hope that the product will be used for rapid prototyping of new ideas in addition to being a fun hobby toy. "If you wanted to recreate a Nest or recreate a Sonos or a DropCam, you could. If you wanted to create the next billion dollar idea, you could do that..."
The Wired article announcing the cloudBit has this to say about the new component and about littleBits in general:
"The cloudBit, announced today, is a new component that’ll connect any littleBits creation to the internet, allowing it to be programmed through a simple web interface. There have been other kits like this before, powered by Raspberry Pi and Arduino—but while those remain powerful, flexible, and inter-operable, none of them possess littlBits’s plug-and-play simplicity. So with the addition of the cloudBit, littleBits could become a reasonable, DIY gateway to the Internet of Things...Rigging together motors, sensors, and noisemakers can be painstaking work, requiring lots of soldering and testing equipment to make sure all your circuits are done right. littleBits, instead, is a modular library comprising dozens of neat electronic components that simply snap together in a line, with magnets...To get started, users first sync their cloudBit to the web app. From there, the web app can link to any any web API, including IFTTT (a service that allows you to chain together websites with simple “If this, then that” logic). Users can then use those data streams to turn the cloudBit on or off, or activate any partial state in between. By linking the cloudBit to any number of other bits, users can create whatever chain of mechanical reactions they like...the littleBits ecosystem now has 59 different components, ranging from basic items like motors, a microphone, and a keyboard to a growing body of sensors that detect everything from light to bends to motion to pressure. (There’s also an Arduino component, for more serious hacking.)"
littleBits' tagline is "the easiest and most extensive way to learn and prototype with electronics." Maybe it's because I'm an engineer and not a marketing person, but from my perspective, it seems unlikely for any product to be both the "easiest" and the "most extensive" way to learn and prototype with electronics. My guess is that littleBits is probably a lot closer to the 'easiest' claim of their tagline than the 'most extensive' claim.
littleBits 'Big Drone Synth' 

In spite of their overreaching marketing department, which may be an apt description of the marketing department at pretty much every company, I do feel littleBits does have a strong appeal for non-technical people who want to incorporate technology into unique or interesting products that they've created in their minds. If an artist, sociologist, psychologist, disaster worker or many other types of people with no desire to figure out how to breadboard an Arduino circuit can fairly quickly learn how to snap together a couple modules that accomplishes something meaningful to them, they will tend to use that product again in the future and start learning how to do more with that product and complementary products.

What this potential appeal for non-technical people says to me is that if littleBits can figure out kits that are useful to a large number of target users and successfully market those kits, it could very likely lead to an active, growing and loyal user community. By removing the Arduino barriers (perceived or real) of learning at least the basics of electronic design and programming basics, littleBits has given itself a much larger potential market. The challenge for littleBits now is figuring out what modules will appeal to and get buzz among non-tech early adopters.

littleBits DIY smartphone-enabled thermostat
I think it would be interesting for the Humboldt Microcontrollers Group to build a product with littleBit modules, then build an MCU-based product that has the same capabilities and features of the littleBit product. We could benchmark the operation of both products, compare the component and build costs for both products and keep track of the actual build time to go from loose components to a properly and reliably operating unit. The main thing stopping us from doing that is the lack of components. If I can identify clear benefits for sponsors, I'll put together a project proposal for doing that comparison and pitch the project to potential sponsors.

One side note of particular interest to me is the IFTTT aspect of littleBits. Ever since I read about 'if this then that,' a couple years ago, I've wanted to experiment with it. Doing a littleBits project would be a good excuse to set up some IFTTT 'recipes' and figure out how much value the service has for me. I'll have to bring up IFTTT at the next MCU meeting to find out how much, if any, people at the meeting have done with it.

If you're reading this blog post and have used littleBits, please come to the next Humboldt Microcontrollers Group meeting, which will be from 6 to 8 PM on Thursday, August 7, to talk about your experience with them and to demonstrate how to use them.


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