A certain Mr. Steve Jobs had a brilliant idea once, which involved making computers accessible to everyone. Ayah Bdeir is pushing this simple concept to a whole new level with her art/engineering project, littleBits. Purchase a Starter Kit of the basic modules and you can start snapping together electrical pieces with magnets that keep you from making any mistakes. From there, the possibilities are endless — Coffee maker? Solar-powered lamp? Fan? All of it will be within the reach of even the most tech-illiterate of us, thanks to littleBits.
You seem like you’ve been busy! What’s been happening at littleBits?
Well, basically we’ve been working on this custom magnet connector. It’s the biggest innovation, but it’s also the biggest hurdle. It’s something we custom-designed, and the whole point of it is that when you put together circuits it keeps you from putting things together the wrong way. The magnets repel each other, and you can’t make any mistakes. Since I’m working with small circuits and I’m trying to get the modules made very cheaply, that multiplies the problem by 100; you want to do something really, really intricate but you want to keep it really small and really reliable. So it has been in design for about two-and-a-half years, and this past June we resolved a lot of the technical hurdles for production. We released 250 kits for the first batch in version 0.1 and it was great: they sold out and they got lots of good reviews, but I wasn’t happy with the connector. It wasn’t very stable, so I went with a redesign and I decided to do this right before the holiday season, which in retrospect may not have been a great idea.
Is this why you were in China last week?
For me it was very, very important because it takes littleBits from being a prototype to being a solid system, but deadlines are tight and a lot of emails are flying around the production manager and myself and the production factory and the assembly factory… lots of cooks in the kitchen. On Saturday night I got an e-mail from one of the people in manufacturing and I felt like there might be a giant misunderstanding, so my production manager Mary and I on Sunday evening at 8pm booked a ticket for next day at 11am and went to China. It was dramatic leading up to it, but it turned out to be really important for us to be there, to solve problems and answer questions, and everything was all right in the end.
Tell me how littleBits came about. Where did you get the idea?
I have a background in computer engineering, and then I did my Masters at the media lab at MIT with a very special group, Computing Culture, led by Chris Csikszentmihályi. It was the first time I learned how powerful tech could be if you were able to use it as a tool for creativity. I started to learn how the fact that I was an engineer was very empowering, and I became very interested in giving that power to people who were not engineers, who did not have the experience or knowledge or interest.
littleBits finally came out of workshops I was doing for a design company here in New York, and I wanted to give them something to prototype with. It was a tiny little thing we made to give them so they could make light and sound and buttons without having to learn about electricity and the rules of physics and all these complex notions. After the first prototypes, I was hooked. I don’t know, I followed a hunch, I stuck with it. It drained all my time, all my money, all my energy, but at the end of June, things panned out, and I saw that I had something that could exist in the world but was also a powerful tool for creativity.
Your website for littleBits seems to be built on getting feedback from users, particularly your Dream Bits section, where people post ideas for new modules. Do you have a favorite Bit that’s been suggested?
So the thing I like about the Dream Bits page is that it’s a very low threshold—it’s basically a comment box with no complex log-in, and there’s nothing you need to learn, no manual you need to read. We get a lot of those submissions, and they’re really from all over the world, from all backgrounds. Some people are retired engineers and want to outfit their room with a solar-powered alarm clock. Another person is a kid or a young adult who wants to make a bicycle light. Another sees an opportunity to make a hand crank with a fan to be able to help developing nations have cooling systems without any complex infrastructure. So there are all sorts of different applications that I never thought about that people get interested in because it feels very accessible.
I know that you identify as an engineer-cum-artist and that MoMA recently exhibited littleBits. Can you talk about how and why littleBits falls into both the science and art categories?
It’s very counterintuitive to think about littleBits as an arts piece, which is really a testament to how avant garde MoMA is. I think that we’re at a time when we consume so many things that blink and buzz and vibrate, that respond to touch and voice, that it has really become the medium and language that surrounds us, that we use. You identify based on whether you use an iPhone or a Blackberry, whether you have this car or that, by how tech-y you are. I think the first part of it is accepting that electronics have become a language and communication medium, and that with this language the things you can create with it become an art form. littleBits in itself empowers a whole different art form from that which previously was reserved for the experts. It’s a platform that’s considered by MoMA to be powerful and transformative. littleBits was acquired by the museum for its permanent collection, which is an amazing honor, and it just means they see this trend and this as an art form that’s going to grow and develop throughout the years.
I like what you said about how it interacts with the language we use about our own personal identities. Can you talk more about that?
I think technology started as being something that was out there — the steam engines, the manufacturing machines, cars. Technology was something we saw. It kept changing and becoming smaller and more integrated with our lives, but gradually technology became something that we consume in our homes, in our bedroom, in our bathroom, and at work. It became something that surrounds us. Then we started seeing technology as something we consume to something we speak with. That is something that we’ve seen in the past few years. Your identity is largely defined by the things that you use; whether you prefer a bike or a car or cook with a microwave or a stove oven says a lot about who you are. I think some people are fatalistic about it and feel like it’s limiting. I myself feel that it’s an opportunity. I think it means that technology breaks the barrier from being this external object to being something that’s integrated with us.
What’s next for littleBits?
The big obsession now is to finish the littleBits Starter Kit 0.2, which is an improved version that is more mechanically stable, more beautiful, and more reliable (the kit came out December 13, 2011, after the interview was conducted). The Starter Kit is the base of the system; you have everything you need to get started — you snap modules, swap them around, experiment. But then the idea is that you start growing the library — you want more LEDs, you want a solar panel, you want a motor that’s rotating or a motor that’s vibrating… As soon as we release version 0.2 we have plans to release new modules on a monthly basis. We have about 38 modules already and then every day we think of new things. The idea is that as we become a stronger community, people will be able to design their own modules. They won’t just say a sentence about what they want — they can design it themselves, make it themselves, sell it to us, sell it through us… it becomes something that’s much larger than just a kit.
What can Daily BR!NK readers do to help?
The thing I would invite people to do is come to the website and learn about littleBits through the videos and pictures. If they are interested, they can buy the new starter kits starting December 13th, and can send us ideas, feedback, comments, or hate mail! And people can suggest their own bits and things they want to see made. They can open that part of creativity that was maybe dormant before.
On a more general level, I want to invite people to not be consumers and not think, “Oh, I’m not a tech person, this is not for me.” I think we’re at a time when that’s no longer acceptable. We need to start being creative with the tools we have and start making things and hacking our houses and learning how things upgrade around us. So look around you, start deconstructing devices you have, hack them, put them together again. There is a whole world of makers, DIYers, and shared instructions — the world is a playground!