LittleBits founder and CEO Ayah Bdeir likes to use the analogy of the iPhone app store to describe the Lab. “If you think about the metaphor of apps for hardware, in our case the iPhone is the LittleBits library. It’s the system,” she explained to Fast Company. “We want people to say, ‘there’s a bit for that,’ and if there isn’t one, they will make one.”
Much like the app store opened up Apple’s API to developers, LittleBits has opened up its world of snapping electronic modules, via the protoBit, a magnetic connector in the Hardware Development Kit that goes on sale today. “It’s a proprietary connector basically creating entry points into the system,” says Bdeir. With that and the rest of the HDK, which also includes a perf board, tinkerers can plug in whatever they can think up and make it work with other bits.
“It’s really limitless what you can do in terms of connecting any hardware systems,” Paul Rothman, LittleBits’ director of research and development, added.
Someone playing around with the HDK might design a Bit with bluetooth functionality, for example. Once designing the module, which LittleBits has tried to make as easy as possible with preloaded design files on its website, the potential piece goes up for vote on the bitLab site. If it gets more than 1,000 votes (for now), LittleBits will review it. If the creation is manufacturable, LittleBits will make it to look and work with all the other LittleBits, and put it up for sale on its website.
As for pricing, LittleBits doesn’t have a cap or floor in mind. Existing Bits currently range from $8 to $59. But if someone builds something worth $300, LittleBits will sell it. Once on sale, 10% of the revenue from any purchases goes back to the developer.
Along with the recently released cloudBit and programmable Arduino connected Bit, Bdeir expects the bitLab to lead to a hardware revolution, akin to the explosion of apps over the last five years. “Anyone with a couple of weeks can make the most popular game, or app, in the app store,” she explained. “In hardware that hasn’t been the case. It’s still very top down, very much closed. We believe that the innovations are not going to come from the Apples or the Googles, they’re going to come from people.”
Until now, prototyping a device took a lot of knowledge and money. With LittleBits, once the bit is designed, it just snaps into an already working system. Every time a new component is added, the maker doesn’t have to reconfigure each part of the system. The Bits were created to be scalable. “We don’t know what you’re going to connect to what. We have to account for billions and trillions of combinations,” Bdeir said.
In theory, this could lead to a lot more prototyping a lot faster. People have already started to think big, filing their ideas to the DreamBits part of the LittleBits site. Bdeir expects a domino effect: as more Bits join the library, more people will think of different and new ideas.
For now, however, the “innovations” seem lightweight. Rothman demonstrated partnerships with MakeyMakey and Bare Conductive. By connecting the disparate systems, he was able to turn on a light with water and activate a synthesizer with an orange. In a more impressive hookup, he controlled his laptop’s Photobooth program with a clap.
Bdeir recognizes that these early inventions aren’t exactly world changing. But she envisions a ripple effect, much like what happened on the iPhone. “When the app store first launched, a lot of the apps were fart apps or distort-your-face apps,” she said. “Now, there are a lot better fart apps, but there are apps to detect skin cancer and there are billion-dollar companies like Uber.”