The Internet of Things (IoT) may be the new hotness, but web connected hardware has been around for years. Before NEST and smart refrigerators were a thing, makers and hardware hackers were hooking up all manner of gadgets to the internet, from Twitter printers to email notification lights. All it took was a piece of hardware, a microcontroller, a WiFi chip, breadboard or PCB, wire, solder, power supply, a working knowledge of electronics and programming, and no small amount of patience.
If you find all of that overwhelming, you’re not alone. It seems like every week there’s a new product on the market to help casual IoT enthusiasts kickstart their creativity. While each offers something a little different in terms of components, programming, or communication, there are none as simple as littleBits. Instead of solder or breadboards, littleBits uses self-contained modules that connect via magnets. Now in its fourth year, littleBits boasts over 60 different modules, from inputs such as microphones, toggle switches, and temperature sensors to outputs such as MP3 players, LED lights, and DC motors.
Their latest offering is designed specifically for those who want to experiment with IoT technologies without the investment in a single-use system. The littleBits Electronics Smart Home Kit contains a variety of sensors and outputs to connect anything in your home to the internet. Snap together a microphone and a cloudBit, and get a text when the drier buzzes or when the dog barks. Hook up a light sensor, LED, and cloudBit and check that you remembered to close the garage door from anywhere. Or, if you’re like me and are more interested in the fun, useless applications, you can wire up a motor to trigger a Portal Sentry Turret to activate any time someone follows you on Twitter.
1. USB Power
I started my circuit with a button module so that I didn’t have to send a tweet every time I wanted to test. This can be removed later, or you can leave it on and reconfigure it to perform a different task.
Next, I snapped on the cloudBit and connected it to my WiFi. After creating an account at littleBits.cc and entering my router password, I was up and running. In addition to directly controlling the cloudBit via the littleBits Control Page, you can use your cloudBit in conjunction with IFTTT (If This Then That). More on this later.
4. IR Transmitter
Now it was time to start making my circuit do something. First, I attached the IR transmitter to the cloudBit. This module sends a signal to the AC switch, turning off and on my desk lamp. In this case it serves no real practical purpose, but it was a good test for how well it works across a room. In the future, I plan to incorporate it into my son’s Portal bedroom to activate and deactivate the Portal lights.
I wanted my Twitter feed to activate the Sentry Turret, but the motion detection on the turret wasn’t quite sensitive enough to pick up the small movements of the motor. No problem. Some glue, duct tape, a popsicle stick from the craft bin, and a CubeeCraft Companion Cube and I was in business.
Using the number module set to “count”, I could now display a running total of the number of follows and mentions I receive. The only problem was that the counter only goes to 99. What happens if 100 people tweet? I needed a way to reset the counter.
The threshold dial worked perfectly as my reset. It will only send a signal if the input reaches a certain level. For instance, if you have the light sensor attached, you can configure the circuit to only trigger once the light reaches a certain brightness (e.g. a sunrise trigger). In my case, I wanted to reset the counter once it reached 50. However, I also wanted to trigger another module at the same time.
The split module snaps onto the output side of a module and sends the signal to two different modules. You can use this at the beginning of your circuit to power two different modules, or in the middle of the circuit to have one output trigger two different actions. In my case, that would be resetting the counter and firing off an MP3.
9. MP3 Player
I now had a working circuit that would turn off and on a light, activate a servo that would trigger a motion detecting Sentry Turret, count the number of activations, and when it reached 50, reset the counter and play an MP3 file. It was now time to trigger my circuit using something other than a button. IFTTT is an online service that allows you to make your own “recipes” to connect different systems. You can have it send a text when someone follows you on Twitter, post to a Slack channel when there’s rain forecast for tomorrow, or save a new email to a Google Drive folder. Creating a recipe for my littleBits was simple. I connected my Twitter account, then my littleBits account, and in a few clicks, I had a working* trigger.
I also took a moment to tie IFTTT to my Slack account so that my family could walk by and push the button while I was at work and I’d receive a message. Cheesy? Sure. But it still brightens my day.
*Keep in mind that IFTTT is not instantaneous. It polls Twitter on a semi-regular basis, so it can be anywhere from 1-5 minutes before a tweet triggers a littleBits circuit.
Other modules in the kit include:
- Light sensor module
- Sound trigger module
- Bright LED module
- Synth speaker module
- Temperature sensor module
- (2) Mounting boards
- USB power adapter and cable
- Various accessories
Here is a live feed of my circuit. You can follow or mention me on Twitter @randyslavey to trigger the circuit.
Update: The stream is now offline. One day of worrying about the entire internet overhearing our lives was all we could take. Plus, my kids wanted the Surface Pro 3 back. Please feel free to go ahead and follow or mention me on twitter and be content in the knowledge that, although you can’t watch it live, you are still annoying the parakeet in the other room – and probably my wife.
My only hang-up with the Smart Home Kit is the inclusion of a single power module. By only including just the one power module, you’re limited to one solution at a time. If you’re like me and have USB cables just lying about, you can purchase additional USB power modules for just $10 each, or you can go cordless with a 9V batter for $11, but for the relatively hefty price tag of $250, it would be nice to have a couple of projects running right out of the box.
The Smart Home Kit feels like a solution looking for a problem, and that’s exactly what I want in an IoT kit. Don’t give me a gadget and tell me how to use it; give me the tools to build the gadget, and let me use my imagination to figure out how to put it to use.
Thanks to the good folks at littleBits for providing me with a Smart Home Kit for review.