Introducing littleBits bitLab

The marketplace for user-generated hardware

September 16, 2014

When we closed our latest round of funding last November, we talked about how the next phase of the company was about making littleBits “the most versatile physical/digital invention platform in the world”.

There’s no doubt about it, that was a bold goal, and we’ve been charging forth building out that vision ever since.

The mission of littleBits is to put the power of electronics in the hands of everyone. After nailing the word “everyone” in the first two years of the company, this year we’ve focused on the word “power” by launching three crucial pillars in the world of “power”.

In the spring we launched the Arduino module, the first Bit™ that allowed programmability, and thus opened up a world of digital behavior and programming into the littleBits library. With the Arduino module, people have been making amazing projects, ranging from smart home devices to musical instrument interfaces.

In July, we launched another pillar of the word “power”: the cloudBit. The cloudBit is the easiest way to create internet ­connected devices. We called the campaign “Snap the Internet to Anything” because we are empowering people to recreate some of the most popular IoT devices (like a DIY Sonos or Nest), to simply solve a problem of one or even prototype the next billion dollar idea.

Now we are at the precipice of taking the platform to the next level by launching the third pillar: the bitLab.

The bitLab is the app store for hardware. It’s a marketplace for user-generated hardware, and allows anyone to create their own littleBits module and share it with the community. In a nutshell, here’s how it works: You submit a module, the community votes on it, we vet it and then manufacture it and share the revenues.

The bitLab is the first of its kind in the field of electronics. Even though it may seem obvious that hardware needs an app store, building a genuine app store that can allow every new “app” to interoperate with every other app and its underlying platform is complex.

For this reason, a genuine app store for hardware, or the bitLab, is a very, very important pillar for multiple stakeholders in our field: littleBits, the hardware developer community, and the electronics industry at large.

 

For the first point, for littleBits, the bitLab means that littleBits will go from being the most extensive hardware platform in the world, to truly becoming infinite. Now, with the introduction of the bitLab, the number and diversity of new modules introduced into the platform is only limited by the diversity and growth of the hardware developer community.

Above are a few dreamBits the community has previously wanted to see. More at littleBits.cc/dreamBits

 

As the company has grown, our engineering output has increased and we’ve been able to scale our development of new modules; but this kind of scaling will only take us so far. The bitLab means we can now open up our R&D department to the entire world and really reach infinite scale. It also means we can learn from people and fields that we have never dreamed of, from sustainability and wearables, to neuroscience and robotics. It means that we can truly put open source hardware and its potential to work, and make those ideas happen.

Even before the bitLab, people are already hacking littleBits to add their innovations. Left to right: DIY littleBits, MIDI bit, OLED Bit all made by community members

 

For the hardware community, the bitLab means our community can come together and develop on one common platform, add in a seemingly incremental innovation, and see the innovation multiply. The hardware developer community has often been distributed, decentralized and considered by the outside world to be secondary to the software developer community. We believe a big part of that is because the community has not had one common platform to develop on, with a supply chain as a backbone, coupled with a marketplace to grow its distribution. But even more importantly, we haven’t seen this happen in hardware because of one simple fact: making hardware modular is an extremely difficult and complex problem. It’s difficult to create a system, a product line, and a supply chain in which one module can be added to the others and work in every which way. Over the past many years, this is exactly what we have done with littleBits. We have made the largest modular hardware library in the world.

The littleBits library is built upon a  modular approach to hardware. Every single module works with every other module, which means you can remix, combine, learn from and iterate in hardware the way you do with software

 

With the bitLab, a hardware developer that has created an exciting new sensor circuit or has an idea for a new digital interaction can create a module (or multiple) and leverage the entire littleBits library with its sensors, switches, wireless transmitters, power, actuators and other modules without having to recreate them. Every new Bit multiplies the power of the rest of the modular platform. And it grows exponentially from there.

Finally, for the electronics industry. Electronics has always been a top down industry. Most innovations come from large companies with huge capital and R&D teams, and the industry is largely prohibitive to non-engineers. But the electronics industry is ripe to be disrupted (one would argue it’s already happening). It’s ready to be revolutionized, and democratized, just as the software and manufacturing industries have been.

 

A decade ago, it was unfathomable to think that a young developer with two weeks of iOS training could create the most popular game in the app store. Or that someone could run a mini factory from their kitchen table with a 3D printer. Now it is possible and happens all the time. We believe the same proliferation will happen with electronics. With the bitLab, our intention is to create a world where you can learn electronics just like you can learn HTML, and you can create the next big hardware product with the same ease as you do an iPhone app. Only when hardware becomes truly democratized and accessible will the electronics industry see true innovation. THAT is what we are building.

How does it work?

We’ve made getting involved as a littleBits developer as easy as possible. We’ve created an HDK that consists of hardware and software tools and templates that aid prototyping as well as design documentation and guidelines for development.

 

Once a working prototype has been created, simply submit the design to the bitLab where it will be up for voting by the community. Share the idea and gather the required votes to make it to the review stage. We’ll help refine the design and get the module ready for manufacturing. From there, we’ll market and sell the module and the developer gets to take home royalties for their great work.

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The bitLab framework

 

We have, for the first time, made our tools available to everyone. This includes the Proto Module we use to prototype with as well as the bitSnap™ connectors that create the magic in every module we make. Combining these tools with the knowledge we have documented in our design manual, developers have everything they need to create their own modules and have them become a part of the littleBits library.

 

How did it start?

The bitLab concept has existed since the inception of the company. It wasn’t until we met with KORG that the opportunity to work with external developers arose. We brought together our knowledge of simplicity and modularity and they brought their knowledge of synthesizer and musical interfaces. We worked closely on the Synth Kit but learned a lot about conveying the principles of littleBits to others. When joining the Arduino At Heart program, we had the opportunity to transform an existing and established product into one that was in tune with the aesthetics of littleBits.

 

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Our partners/beta testers for the bitLab. From left to right, top to bottom: Massimo Banzi of Arduino, Tatsuya Takahashi of Korg, Jay Silver of MaKey MaKey, and Matt Johnson of Bare Conductive, Gabriel Anzziani of Gabotronics, Greg Gage of Backyard Brains, and Dr. Bleep of Bleep Labs.

 

From there we created guidelines, documentation, and templates that could be delivered to developers in the hopes that modules could be developed with little influence from us. The first modules submitted to the bitLab represent the diversity that is now possible for the littleBits platform. Partners like MaKey MaKey and Bare Conductive allow users to interact with the rest of the littleBits library in ways previously not possible. Turning everyday objects into inputs or interacting with modules without touching them greatly expands the types of projects that are possible.

Bleep Labs’ Bleep Drum expands upon the great musical instrument platform we started with KORG and the Synth Kit.

 

The original Bleep Drum (left) and the Bleep Drum littleBits module (right)

Bleep Drum littleBits module in action

 

Module submissions like the EMG module from Backyard Brains take littleBits into the world of biofeedback and wearables.

 

 

Gabotronics’ Oscilloscope adds a technical sophistication that will most likely be many users’ introduction to industry standard electronic development tools like oscilloscopes and frequency counters.

Gabotronics’ Xprotolab Oscilloscope

 

Here is the Xprotolab in use.


 

Using the touch sensor module from Bare Conductive, littleBits users can create interaction without touching the modules. It even works through plastic and glass.

Bare conductive littleBits module

Connect littleBits to everyday objects with the littleBits MaKey MaKey module.

 

 

More submissions at www.littleBits.cc/bitLab

 The future belongs to you

When the iPhone app store launched, most of the apps were small, basic, and frivolous.

Now there are more than 1.3 million apps, over $15 billion distributed to software developers around the world, and apps that help skin cancer detection to billion dollar companies. The hardware developer community is next.

Over the past decade, while the world marveled at software developers, us hardware developers waited for the time when people would realize that true world change doesn’t come on screens, it comes from physical objects with modern, digital capabilities. No one looks forward to a world of screen cyborgs. No one created a burning man with a desert city of monitors and projected surfaces. The next frontier of society is coming from hardware. Elegant, well designed, human-focused hardware.

The bitLab is there to power it, and frankly we can’t wait.

-Ayah Bdeir, Founder/CEO & Paul Rothman, Director R&D