Looking for an electronics building set that's even easier and less expensive than Lego Mindstorms, but just as versatile? You'll want to check out LittleBits. Their open modules link together with magnets, and teach kids all sorts of basic lessons about the circuits without the need to use wire or learn how to solder.
That's the sort of thing that makes it safe for little hands. No doubt it's one reason that LittleBits just won itself $3.65 million in venture capital funding. This is the first institutional money the company has taken; investors participating in this round included True Ventures, Khosla Ventures, O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, and Lerer Ventures. LittleBits is even working with PHC International, a supply chain management company, to put its products into mass production starting next month.
But if you're like me, you really want to hear how it works. Described as half building block, half circuit board, each “bit” joins to the others with magnets. They all have distinct functions falling into one of four categories: power (to make whatever you put together work), input (switches, sensors, etc), output (bargraph, buzzer, fan, LED lights, etc), and wire (to route power and communication between the bits). The bits can teach kids about circuits while they're playing with them and making things. They can also help hardware hackers to do fast prototyping.
So how much does this cost? A teaser kit with only three bits is $29, but you'll probably want the starter kit, for $89. You get 10 bits with that kit, and it's still less expensive than Lego Mindstorms. Additional bits range in price from $8.00 for a power bit that adds a 9 volt battery to $20.00 for items like fan or pressure sensor bits. That may sound like a lot, but remember, once you've made the outlay, you can use these bits over and over again.
But wait, there's more. The LittleBits website boasts an active set of forums and a community keenly interested in taking LittleBits as far as they can. Representatives of the company are active on the forums; that's how I found out that the recommended minimum age for LittleBits is six years and that teachers can get a 15 percent educational discount on their purchases.
You'll be pleased to hear that one of the power bits is a USB connector. According to one of its forum threads, LittleBits is “planning on releasing some 'smart' Bits in the future. These will include programmable Bits and networking Bits.” This post was made back in April, so there might be some coming out soon.
In addition to the forums, there's a community where users can share the projects they've made with LittleBits. Projects on display include robots, money scales, light mixers, and more. The community projects show quite a bit of creativity; you'll find everything from a dancing Jack Skellington to a “toilet tube torch” to a wearable watch that wakes you up when it gets light. There's even a section on the site where you can make suggestions for the kinds of bits you'd like to see in the future, dubbed “dreamBits.” (And yes, someone has already suggested creating a bit that allows LittleBits to interface with Arduino hardware).
If you have kids in your life that you'd like to see learn about electronics, and they're a little too young for Lego Mindstorms, you might want to start them with LittleBits. If you want to be able to do hardware prototyping more cleanly and easily than you're doing now, you might want to at least give LittleBits a good look. As for me, I'm thinking about adding LittleBits to my holiday wish list.
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