Building Electronics is Getting Easier with the Open Hardware Revolution

Posted by Ayah Bdeir

I have been involved in the open hardware revolution since the very beginning. I call it a “revolution” as opposed to a movement, because I believe it will send jolts through technology, design, and innovation, similar to the way 3D printing has rocked all of these fields. The open hardware revolution is not simply about making hardware that is shareable, but also building together, on top of each other's designs. I developed littleBits to create the platform where people could create on top, instead of just making product after product from scratch.

Build upon existing technology.

From the outside, littleBits seems like Legos for electrical engineers, but we're like a Wikipedia for electronics, an open-source, user-friendly array of electronic components that can be built into virtually anything. 

The Synth Kit we created with the electronic instrument manufacturer KORG is littleBits’ first iteration of that idea. Using complex designs that KORG had around for 10 or 15 years, we adapted them onto the littleBits system, making them into modules that the user can rearrange into almost any number of configurations. Then, you can combine the new configuration with almost anything. The modules literally become a library. That’s what the Synth Kit is: a library of different modules that are all interchangeable and inter-operable, and it’s not about just a set of devices that have a certain function. To use the Synth Kit is really about utilizing this modular library to create a uniquely functioning synthesizer.

Don't oversimplify.

Artists and musicians that have no electronics training have been gravitating towards the Kit. Ultimately, it reminded me that we never need to dumb a product down. We never need to oversimplify or say things like, “We have to assume how the user is going to use it.” We don’t. We simply have to make things that we like, and the user will figure out how they want to use it.

We want the user to feel empowerment via electronics. The moment the user connects those first two littleBits together, they suddenly realize that they’re the one that made that light go on, or that motor spin. Suddenly, the user’s mind starts to make all these different connections of applications that are possible. We see that happen over and over again, where all it takes is for the user to snap the first two modules together, and all of these other things become possible. We just want you to feel energized to start making these other things.

Play around and experiment because it's empowering.

littleBits can be used by children too. There are many videos that have been sent to us featuring younger users’ designs. The feeling never fails: we see their faces light up when they snap the first two modules together as they realize what they can do. It makes me want to let these children's creativity take center stage.

I have witnessed children that, at first, say, “I’m not into this. I don’t understand. I don’t know what I’m doing.” We have also heard adults say things like, “I’m not a techie. I’m not creative.” But after the begin to work with littleBits, that feeling passes. They feel that they can jump in and do anything. Suddenly, their attitude changes to that of possibility: “Can I do this? Can I do that? Oh, what if I do this?” From these tiny components, we have seen people make a simple robot, an interactive art display, a "sibling alarm," a toy pet that wags its tail, and a functional object for their school. We have even seen adults use it for prototyping their concepts. The user has an idea for a hardware product, and they use littleBits as a prototyping tool. littleBits itself is really not the point. It becomes what you make of it.

What would you like to see made possible in the field of open-source hardware?

Ayah Bdeir is the founder of littleBits, which has won more than 20 toy, tech, parenting, and maker awards, and was recently added to the permanent collection at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York. Bdeir herself is also a TED Senior Fellow and the Co-Founder of the Open Hardware Summit.