The other day, there was a minor meltdown in my house when my seven-year-old’s creative vision exceeded her physical skills. It doesn’t happen that often, but it’s heartbreaking when it does — in fact, I’ve been known to suffer from it myself from time to time, although without the meltdown! On this occasion, I was contacted by Ayah Bdeir, the CEO and founder of littleBits, who wondered whether some of her littleBits might help the situation and she said, “Eradicating that very moment is what I live for!”
If you’ve not heard of littleBits before, they’re kinda like Lego for electronics. Each bit performs a specific function in an electronic circuit, and they snap together with magnets so there’s no need to solder anything. The magnets ensure they can only be connected in the correct way and it’s really quick and easy to string them together and make a circuit, and then just as easy to take them apart and build something else.
When the kits arrived the meltdown and its cause were long forgotten, but we wasted no time in playing with the new toys anyway. The kits contained a good spread of the various bits that are available. Three different power sources — 9V battery, a rechargeable coin cell and a USB cable. Input devices such as pressure, light and motion triggers, together with various buttons and switches. Wires and junctions to feed the power through to the output devices which included various LEDs, a buzzer, motors and even a fan. Each type of bit is color-coded and the simple instructions included show you how to make up some basic circuits, including things like a switch to turn on a light when you open a box, a flickering lantern or a simple bristle-bot.
We quickly went through all of the examples on the leaflets with me explaining what each bit did and then we began experimenting, but it wasn’t until we checked out the excellent littleBits blog that she found her inspiration. There was one post that featured some littleBits combined with a MakeDo Elephant kit and, coincidentally, she had received the same kit for her birthday but not used it yet. So off she ran to grab some boxes and tubes from our cardboard stock (what do you mean you don’t have a stockpile of cardboard ready and waiting to be turned into something amazing?) and the Makedo kit and before long had a nice looking elephant ready to get wired up.
The one from the littleBits blog used the motors and a sound trigger to make the elephant come to you when you clap. We didn’t get a sound sensor so decided to use the motion trigger instead and hook it up to some LEDs and the buzzer — which she actually installed in the elephant’s trunk for added realism! We couldn’t really get the motors to work as the legs we’d used were too small to fit them inside, and also we couldn’t find any wheels that would work with them. However, it would be a simple job to stick some Lego wheels on with a bit of Sugru, but we’ll leave that for another time. We wedged the LEDs inside the plastic lids we’d used for eyes (so they’d glow nicely) and hid the battery in the body of the elephant and now we had a motion-sensing elephant that buzzed when you tried to sneak up on it. See the video below for the results, and how she managed to beat it!
There were still loads of bits left over after making the elephant, and she was off trying to find other things to do with them. She loved playing with the small PC fan and EL wire — even if was tricky to make it spell out anything! She found the effect of the dimmer and slider intriguing, especially when you put them together, and quickly discovered that the vibrating motor was excellent for annoying her Dad! The best one, however, had to be when she noticed that the “long LED” was about the same size as the hole in the middle of a four stud diameter Lego circle and that led to little Tommy’s bedroom acquiring a fancy dimable lighting system!
littleBits are a fantastic platform for learning about electronics and circuits, but they really come into their own when you combine them with other stuff you have around to create things greater than the sum of their parts. The kits and individual bits are available from Amazon and directly from the littleBits shop.
Massive thanks to CEO Ayah Bdeir and Katelyn Bogucki of littleBits for supplying us with the kits to play with.
The kind folks at littleBits have given GeekDad readers a $10 discount code. Just enter geekdadaugust at the checkout on their site before 8/31/13 to receive the money off!