littleBits: An Innovation in Education With Just a Little Further to Go

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine introduced me to the amazing world of littleBits. I had been taking an electrical engineering course last semester, spending lots of time in lab playing with circuits, so I was especially excited to see such an innovative product that made it so easy for kids to explore the world of electronics and build their own toys out of them!

littleBits is like LEGOs for electronics: they have a variety of different electrical components that snap together with magnetics to create all sorts of different circuits. For example, you could snap the power source component, the knob component, and the LED component, and as you turn the knob, the LED will turn dimmer and brighter. littleBits has already developed all sorts of creative bits, as they call them, to create a wide variety of electronic circuits, including motion sensor inputs to DC motor outputs. You can see all of them here

A thoughtful, innovative product

I took some time to look through their website and think about their product, and I’m deeply impressed by what they’ve been able to create so far. Here’s why I think littleBits is an amazing educational product.

No annoying obstacles to slow you down

The most difficult thing when you start something new is often the small, but numerous hurdles you must surpass as you begin. When you want to start exercising, you have to find a gym, get a membership, and perhaps learn the basic exercise movements. When you first learn to code, you may have to find the right learning materials, install various applications, and get your environment set up. In electronic circuits, you have to buy the right parts, have a basic understanding of electricity (in particular Ohm’s Law), and be prepared to spend some frustrating time debugging your circuit. Each of these small obstacles present opportunities for you to stop and just give up.

littleBits eliminates these tiny inhibitors and lowers the barrier for children to begin playing with electronics. No more need to verify all your breadboard connections and check your spec sheet to see that all the pins are in the right places; littleBit’s fantastic magentic snap ensures that your connections are always correct! littleBits clearly worked hard to optimize on this front, and I think their work will pay off, as younger children have much less patience than adults, and even we have difficulty sticking through with new things!

A lower barrier to experimentation results in greater innovation

The magnetic snap on the little bits allows you to quickly assemble and disassemble the bits. This allows for children to easily experiment and build all kinds of creative products. In the past decade, the ease with which internet applications can now be built has resulted in an explosion in innovation in the internet industry. Similarly, I believe littleBits will enable many more children to create incredible toys and projects with electronics than ever before.

Quick trial and error allows for learning by exploration and discovery

Most importantly, littleBits seems to have been designed for kids to learn through exploration and discovery. I can imagine that most kids would be able to pick up some littleBits and figure out how they work in a short amount of time, just by putting things together and seeing how they work. I believe this aspect of the product is perhaps most significant, because it results in learning, without the children feeling like they’re really learning anything — it’s just play to them! And that’s the best kind of activity to foster a life of intellectual curiosity and lifelong learning, because it demonstrates that learning is fun.

Still improvements to be made

However, while thinking about the product, I found that there are still a few areas in which littleBits could do better.

Prohibitively expensive

The biggest disappointment I had with littleBits was with their pricing. If you buy the bits in kits, then they’re about $9-10 per bit, and they are even more expensive if you buy them individually. I’m not an expert in electronics, so it isn’t clear to me what a reasonable price for these components would be, but from the perspective of a consumer, littleBits is currently prohibitively expensive. If I wanted to create a project with any moderate amount of complexity, I’m sure I would at least need one or two dozen bits, which would end up costing me up to two hundred dollars! littleBits will have to bring their prices down before they can tap into the mainstream consumer market.

Memory modules will expand the range of projects

I also worry that the set of bits that littleBits currently has doesn’t offer sufficient replay value to justify their costs. While they have a simple model of power, input, output, and wiring modules, I would imagine that one would quickly become bored of playing with the bits, because there are only so many combinations that can be created.

What littleBits needs to do is add the fundamental concept of memory and storage to their components. Doing so would explode the possibilities for what could be created — the vast majority of electronic components today require the use of memory, and the few that do not (e.g., a guitar amp) probably couldn’t easily be made with littleBits. Including memory would allow projects to become stateful, opening a entire new world of applications.

In Conclusion

I commend the team behind littleBits for all the work they’ve put into creating such a simple and educational product. Simplifying a product is one of the hardest things to do and especially so for engineers! I think littleBits has the potential to be very successful in the future, but there are still a few small things that I believe need to be resolved, but when they do, I’m sure they will have an outstanding market entrance.