Best DIY Electronics & Modular Circuits – littleBits, Mirobot and More
At the Intersection of Design and Technology
Technology is intimidating. You might be comfortable using a computer, smartphone, or any other gadget in a functional or creative way, but only if you don’t have to look under the hood, so to speak. In 2015, though, is this the right approach? Products like littleBits are seeking to change our technophobic attitude, and are aiming to show us how creativity and engineering can work together.
The name littleBits may seem silly (and, OK, it kind of is), but the littleBits themselves are actually quite serious. In fact, we’re convinced that by the end of this write-up, no matter how reluctant you might be to use wires and circuits and switches (and code — my God, code), you’ll want to get your hands on these cool components and start experimenting for yourself.
1. littleBits – 21st Century Building Blocks
So let’s start with the basics: littleBits are modular electronics — small pieces, all of which have a very specific function, that all fit together so you can make all sorts of electronic projects. That’s right — you can make something. You don’t need to know how to solder or wire or program or anything like that. Instead, littleBits just snap together with magnets, so you’re always sure to connect them properly. They’re like Legos updated for the STEM generation.
The best thing about littleBits is that they make learning about electronics fun, hands-on, interactive, and highly accessible. There’s no need to wire up complicated breadboards or anything like that. Plus, with littleBits, every piece is colour coded, so you’ll know that pink is always an input, green is always an output, blue is always power, and orange is always a wire.
What You Can Build with littleBits
Really, you can make anything with littleBits as long as it runs on electricity. For example, users have made small robots compatible with Arduino that do all sorts of tasks, such as draw, sweep the floor, or dispense pet treats. They’ve built controllable vehicles, mini pinball machines, and loads of little gizmos. The possibilities are basically endless; if it requires power and you can envision it, you can probably build it with littleBits.
Plus, littleBits encourages community sharing in the spirit of open source. There are tons of project ideas on the littlebits.cc website. You can see what others have done, get instructions for how to make things, and even post how you’ve improved upon someone else’s invention.
littleBits Kits of Kit
There are well over a dozen different starter kits available from littleBits, and the one you choose all depends on what you want to make. There’s a popular Gadgets and Gizmos box, a Synth kit for budding musicians, and even a Smart Home kit for automating things in your home. You can also order littleBits one component at a time, but of course, it’s always a better deal to order them in kits.
The target audience for littleBits is mostly kids, but really, this is a product for anyone who wants to learn about technology and electronics in a fun, interactive, and low-stress way. It’s also important to note that unlike some STEM-based toys, littleBits is not aimed strictly at boys. The whole colour scheme is gender neutral. More than that, though, it’s important to know that the founder of the company is a woman.
The Woman Behind littleBits
Unlike a lot of tech companies, especially those that focus on STEM education, littleBits is helmed by a woman. She’s Ayah Bdeir, and her CV is quite impressive. She’s a graduate of the MIT Media Lab, regularly named one of the most creative people in business by top publications like Fast Company, NY Business Journal, and Popular Mechanics, and she’s been widely recognised by organisations like Creative Commons and TED for her contributions to technology, business, and education.
In fact, you can watch her TED talk from 2012, when she was named a TED fellow. In it, Bdeir talks about the history of building big things from small parts, tracing the history of littleBits back to Legos and even concrete blocks. She’s passionate about, as she explains it, putting “the power of technology into the hands of artists and designers.” It’s an amazingly powerful idea, and it’s this synergy that will undoubtedly drive the coming waves of tech innovation.
2. Mirobot – DIY Wi-Fi Robotics For Kids
Drawing inspiration from the old school Logo Turtle robots, Mirobot is a tiny, Wi-Fi enabled, and open-source robotics kit that’s particularly designed to get kids interested in robotics at early ages. Though there have been quite a number of robots similar to this before, the Mirobot has its own upsides in simplicity, kid-friendliness and low price that make it stand head and shoulders above its predecessors.
The gizmo, which can be easily programmed using a programming GUI similar to that of a web-page, has its main function in drawing geometrical shapes and patterns. It’s an Arduino-compatible module, which makes the process of reprogramming easy, in case you would like to do other things with it, and comes in both pre-soldered and unsoldered forms for learners and experts respectively.
To highlight on its simplicity and ease of use, Mirobot comes without an outer casing so that users, learners in particular, can see exactly how the robot and its parts function.
The project was funded on Kickstarter and more than £25,000 has been raised. The final consumer kit is expected to be available later in 2015 for a price between $99 and $199.
3. AttoDuino – DIY Electronics Kit
AttoDuino is yet another DIY Electronics kit that features the famous Arduino in its core. As one of its most outstanding feature, the AttoDuino runs on an ARM M4F CPU, one of the fastest we have, with an 80MHz built-in floating point compressor.
Thanks to an onboard rechargeable battery, the robot can run from its battery or directly from an external source of power. It also features battery voltage reading and regulation functions, which together with the built-in temperature regulator, make it easy for you to monitor the progress of your project.
The AttoDuino has Bluetooth connectivity, meaning that you can also programme this robot over Bluetooth, besides the Wi-Fi module which is common with almost every other gizmo of this type.
Other detailed features include 10 12-bit analog input channels, which can also be utlised in digital input/output, 3 colour LEDs, two pushbuttons – one general purpose and one reset – Bluetooth 3.0 and multiple PWM.
4. Hummingbird Duo
As a spinoff product of Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE lab and a successor of the original Hummingbird Robotics kit which was discontinued back in 2014, the Hummingbird Duo Premium Robotics Kit is designed to create an interest in robotics activities and engineering for young children and learners in general. The kit’s main function is to make robots and animatronics built from crafting materials and kit parts. It features 33 pre-soldered parts and sports a good number of motors and sensors – basically everything your robot-companion project calls for.
Together with a cross-platform, the kit features a simple visual programming environment which is a perfect way to introduce kids and learners to engineering and robotics with construction materials they’ve come across before (it doesn’t come with included building materials).
The kit generally has the following features: four single colour LEDs, four servos, standoffs, two tri-colour LEDs, servo extension cables, a plastic block adapter, two wheel adopters, gear motors, vibration motors, distance, temperature, rotary, sound and light sensors, a terminal tool, a USB cable, a 5V/2A power cable and a Hummingbird Duo controller. Most of these features were present in the old version of the Hummingbird but a few such as the sensors, LEDs, vibration motors, servos and motors are either new or revised.
There are two available kits, the Base kit and the Premium kit, which go at $145 and $249 respectively.
Probably the most unique of DIY modular electronics, Printoo is an Arduino-compatible platform comprising of paper-thin circuit boards and modules, which helps prototype by giving anything it attaches to smart technology capabilities. The project was crowdfunded on Kickstarter back in 2014 and according to Ines Henriques, who’s the woman behind it, the main purpose of these impossibly thin electronic components is to enable the Internet of Print, as she calls it.
Ynvisible, Printoo’s manufacturer, employs a very simple, old school and cheaper technology, electrochromic (EC) displays – the same used in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner to shade windows – in the manufacture of this gadget. Electrochromics and printed electronics in general have been largely overlooked in the consumer electronics industry despite their remarkable high-altitude applications but Henrique believes Printoo can be the tool to turn the universal attitude in favour of this low-power and cost efficient tech.
So what does the gadget do? Printoo kits come with sets of essential ‘blocks’ such as wireless conectors, sensors, batteries and solar panels, all in paper-thin and flexible form, such that it can easily be affixed to any kind of surface. Users are able to combine these blocks and use the Arduino microcontroller to think of new ideas, create prototypes and come up with devices easily.
A lot of projects have already been created with the help of Printoo and some of them have been shared in Ynvisible’s official website. The biggest breakthroughs include a Bluetooth fan, a 3D printed watercraft with motors and an electronic voting poster with touch sensors. Each of the shared projects includes a code and the materials required to guide you through your projects with the Printoo kit.
SAM is also a modular electronics kit. It’s wireless, so there’s no Lego-like snapping like there is with littleBits. Every part is connected via the app or web tool, and you can see the code as you make your connections via the GUI drag and drop, which helps you learn how code works. SAM raised over £125,000 on Kickstarter about a year ago, and it started shipping out this summer.
7. Snap Circuits
There’s also Snap Circuits, which is a easy to use tool that teaches kids (and curious adults) how electricity works by using components that snap together. It’s a little less advanced than littleBits or SAM, but then again, it’s been on the market for a few years already. The things you can build with Snap Circuits seem less kinetic and interactive than what you can make with littleBits or SAM, but it’s still a fantastic teaching tool for budding engineers or anyone who wants a better understanding of how electricity works.
Other Creative Engineering Players
Due to efficiency, versatility and the sheer fact that it has been in the game for long – making it a tried and tested option, and thus, a company that can be trusted – LittleBits has been the market leader for the better part of the modular electronics’ short history.
That, however, doesn’t mean we’re short of alternatives or in any way suffering a dearth of creative people out there. We have enough engineers, believe me, and the market is actually crowded with brands and brands of modular electronics. The thing is, most companies are still young, operating in small scale (due to the underwhelming market demand), not fully established and lacking functionality flexibility and versatility, denying them the exposure that has driven LittleBits and a few other companies to the top.
That said, we have some brands that are giving LittleBits a run for their money.
Great For Kids, Great For Anyone
A product like littleBits has so much potential to teach kids about how the technology they love actually works. With STEM subjects being pushed so much in schools all over the world, and with the future of the global economy so heavily dependent on the tech sector, it only makes sense to put modular electronic components into the hands of students of all ages.
Bottom line: littleBits is an awesome product made by a mission-driven company with a true visionary at the top. SAM has great potential to grow in the coming years, as the company grows and more and more consumers get their hands on a kit. And a quick look online shows that lots of kids all over the world have built some pretty cool things with Snap Circuits. Forget Legos, erector sets, and breadboards. Electronic building blocks like littleBits are for kids today so they can be innovators tomorrow.
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