This article is part of a Special bitLab Week on MakingSociety. In addition of this 2-parts article series, make sure to listen to the podcast episode. Happy prototyping and good luck!
littleBits launched the bitLab in September with one goal: letting makers create their own modules for the littleBits family.
So far, all littleBits modules were designed by the team and placed under open hardware licence (some in collaboration with Korg and Arduino) – at the exception of the magnetic connectors that connect modules to each others. Founder and CEO Ayah Bdeir is one of the major actors of open hardware. She helped creating the first definition for open source hardware, and co-created the Open Hardware Summit.
With bitLab, Open Source Hardware gets a platform. I see a lot of open source hardware companies who don’t have enough time to document and support an actual community of developers. Makers who want to get involved generally don’t have clearly defined ways to do so.
littleBits addresses both of these issues with the introduction of the bitLab.
Company created a full process that includes:
- Available documentation
- A Hardware Development Kit
- A platform for the community to submit module prototypes
and on top of that littleBits will…
- actually manufacture developers’ modules and incorporate them into the littleBits catalog
- share revenue and credit with developers whose modules get accepted!
With this bitLab experiment, littleBits is again leading open source hardware innovation.
In this article, I tell you all about the bitLab, how you can be part of it and how you can succeed on it. Follow the guide below and get your prototypes submitted and your modules made.
What is littleBits?
First of all, let’s give you a bit more background about littleBits. It’s a first important step to know if you should consider be part of their development. Company is based in Brooklyn, New York. It got started in September 2011 by Ayah Bdeir.
Electronics bits for education, art and prototyping
littleBits develops and sells electronics for educators, artists and makers. It’s an ever-growing library of electronic modules that snap together with magnets so you can invent anything. Each module is a complete individual electronic circuit that can connect to any other module without the need for soldering, programming, or wiring. Modules are specifically designed for prototyping and learning, without the usual hassles and risks of electronics.
littleBits is not a bootstrapped company but a well-founded startup. O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, True Ventures, Foundry Group and Khosla Ventures are a few of its investors, along with business angels such as Nicholas Negroponte, Joi Ito or Joanne Wilson. They also benefited of the support of hardware company PCH International.
It means that company has little chance to close its doors in the next months, which is good news if you plan to spend time on a bitLab project.
Open Hardware is at its core
littleBits played a strong role in defining open source hardware, and is still leading the charge. Company’s CEO Ayah Bdeir is a long-time advocate for open source hardware. She was a fellow at Creative Commons in 2010 and alongside Alicia Gibb co-founded and co-chaired the first Open Source Hardware Summit that led to the definition of Open Source Hardware.
I took the time to actually look at licences used by littleBits. It should be one of your first move before taking part to any open hardware project, as you may get surprises. littleBits has a neat section in their FAQ about what is and is not open source.
The electronic schematics of each of their modules are open source and are covered under the CERN OHL v1.2 license.
The bitSnap connectors that enable the modules to connect as a platform are proprietary and are littleBits’ key assets. Branding elements are protected too (logo, font, white and purple silkscreen).
While littleBits has open sourced all of its modules so far, the developer has the choice as to whether they wish their design to be open sourced or not. This page on littleBits website will give you more detail about it.
What to expect from joining the bitLab ?
Let’s start at the end of the journey: if your module receives enough votes and is approved for manufacturing, it is now a part of the littleBits library. What’s in it for you?
littleBits shares revenues with you. Every time your module is bought by a customer, you get 10% of the sales. littleBits doesn’t disclose their selling numbers but most popular modules certainly sell for multiple zeros.
You will learn how to do hardware for the masses. If you want to get first-hand experience on developing hardware for actual consumers, this could be a great opportunity. Engineering and design students, makers with company idea in mind, hobbyist inventors… the bitLab is a chance to get the ball rolling.
Not all submissions will turn into actual littleBits modules, and it’s up to the community to determine which are the most desirable. A submission first needs 1000 votes that can come from the littleBits community, the developer’s community, the hardware community, or anyone else who wants to help bring a module to life.
Once enough votes are reached, littleBits will review the submission for the following (but not limited to): Module Diversity, Market Trends, Manufacturability, Price, System Feasibility, On Current Roadmap, Unique Investment on littleBits side. For more details you can read the FAQ article here.
If your submission is officially accepted it transitions to become “In Production.” This process includes DFM (design for manufacturing), utilization of standard components, and adherence to littleBits schematic layout paradigms. littleBits goes through this process for every module it sells, whether a part of the bitLab or not. Being able to see some of this process from the inside is a killer opportunity.
Manufacturing, marketing, logistics and sales are taken care of for you. For those of you who are not really excited in getting their hands dirty doing shipping, sales, marketing and more, selling through littleBits is a great option. You will only interact with the team on getting your design to a final manufacturable state and littleBits will take care of the rest: from spinning up production lines, to sourcing components, to selling and shipping it around the world, while you’ll get royalties from your creation.
How to get started?
The bitLab works in 3 pretty simple steps.
- Step 1: Create a prototype and submit it to the bitLab page
- Step 2: Collect 1000 votes from the bitLab community, your own community, Social Media, and more.
- Step 3: Once the votes are accumulated, your submission is reviewed by the bitLab team at littleBits to determine whether or not to move forward with production
In a few months, your module will be available for sale just like the rest of littleBits’ modules!
Let’s explore together how to pick a module idea and how to prototype it.
Your Module Idea
Before to invest time and energy designing a module, you’ll want to hone in on an idea that has a good chance of actually becoming a part of the littleBits library.
First tip is an important one:
your module should do only one thing.
Don’t try to create the ultimate all-in-one module but instead focus on one clear function. Idea behind littleBits is modularity. It should be easy to combine your module with others.
Be a Great Addition to the littleBits Family
There are currently 57 modules available and 8 more are coming soon. Modules are sold individually or in kits.
The whole catalog of modules is organized in 4 categories based on their function. Each category has its own color.
Blue is power.
You’ll always need a power module to get going.
(2 modules available)
Pink is input.
Input modules interpret surroundings to make things happen. They are switches, buttons, sensors.
(23 modules available)
Orange is wire.
Wire modules let you extend and branch out. Some of advanced connectivity features such as CloudBit or Arduino.
(17 modules available)
Green is output.
Output modules are the ones that make things happen: visual (lights), physical (motors), audible (sounds).
(15 modules available)
Your module should clearly belong to one of these categories. Pick a color and explore your ideas in this category.
From a quick counting, I see a lot of opportunities in the green category. Output ideas are plentiful and fun.
That being said, your options are almost unlimited. Be creative.
Take your time
Second tip: Don’t dive in head first.
Take some time to dig deeper. See if you can develop a module around an idea that you’re truly passionate about.
Here are my recommendation on how to do so:
1. Learn. Get familiar with the littleBits catalog. A few minutes on this page is enough to get a full overview of the catalog.
2. Research. Then, go to the Dreambits page in bitLab. This is where the community submits ideas for potential littleBits modules which can inspire you to turn their words into prototypes.
3. Brainstorm. Put the kettle on and have a cup of tea. Take a piece of paper and a pen. Spend 20 minutes writing down every module ideas that come to mind. Just write down everything. Don’t go check if it’s already done, or how to do it. You’ll think about that later. For now, focus on letting your ideas flow.
4. Brainstorm some more. Stop writing after 20 minutes or when you’re out of ideas. If you found yourself dry or you really don’t know what to create, here are a few things you can do to find inspiration:
- Go to your favorite electronics and DIY websites: Adafruit, SparkFun, Hack a Day, Makezine, Evil Mad Scientist, Olimex… (the worldwide list is here) and browse projects. Write down the ones that excite you and try to find how they could become a module.
- Think of problems you would like to solve in the world: shelter for homeless people in your town? ending malaria? saving an endangered species? no more racism? stop global warming? Think how awesome it could be to create a module that could help out people working on these problems! Just a small function that could come in handy. Pollution sensor, water filter, blood testing…
- Browsing crowdfunding websites is also good for inspiration: check technology section of Kickstarter, IndieGoGo and others.
5. Hone. Now that your piece of paper is full of ideas, it’s time to narrow down to the 3 modules that you really, really, really would like to work on. Be strong and cross out the ones you’re not that interested in, the ones that are already sold by littleBits or developed by others on the bitLab.
From this smaller list, it’s also the right time to start thinking about the technical aspects of it. Pick an idea that is in your skills range. You don’t want to start with a nuclear reactor module when you’re just starting with electronics.
The Bleep Drum is one of the recent modules that’s been accepted and will be on sale in the coming months. It’s a great example of a submission that does one thing really really well: make a drum sound. It has a number of modes that work with other littleBits modules but in the end it focuses on doing one thing.
Prototype the module
Ok, so you found a great module idea. Now is time to start prototyping. What do you need? How should it look like? Where to find help and resources? Let’s get to it.
Your Prototype is a Proof of Concept
Think of your submission as proving a functional prototype. It doesn’t (and in most cases won’t) look like a finished littleBits module, but as long as it works with other modules, you’re in good shape.
It can be made on a custom circuit board, a solderless breadboard, or simply created using the littleBits perf Module, a tiny breadboard with bitSnap connectors attached. Your prototype is your proof of concept. Your goal is to show what your module does and how it can interact with other bits.
A recent proposal for a Scratch module by Electronica Divertido shows a solderless breadboard, a number of wires, all connected to other modules. As you can see, the proof-of-concept prototype is much bigger than what a resulting final module would look like. What matters most is to show functionality and connectivity with the rest of the littleBits library.
Another example of prototype with this Humidity Sensor created by bltRobotics. Another example of a functional prototype with this Humidity Sensor created by bltRobotics. The team added a humidity sensor, resistors and wires to the Perf bit. The demo is functional and was able to go to the voting phase.
Get the Hardware Development Kit (HDK)
Because the idea behind the bitLab is to create modules for the littleBits family, you need to work directly with existing modules. There are multiple ways to do so.
The easiest way is to get the Hardware Development Kit. This HDK has been specially conceived by littleBits to develop modules for the bitLab. It includes 2 proto modules, 1 perf module, 12 bitSnaps and bitSnap colored stickers. You can find it on littlebits.cc for $39.95 (the whole value of the pack is $51.80).
This is how it works:
Another way to find littleBits modules is to go to your local maker space. Many spaces have full sets of littleBits parts to play with, and they also have members who may be excited by your idea and able to work with you.
Get Familiar with littleBits Design Guidelines
The bitLab put up together 3 documents that will help you prototyping. Let’s look at this sweet documentation:
- The Quick-Start Guide is a required reading. It’s a 2 pages document that gives you essential information on electrical requirements for designing a module. You’ll find it on bitLab page here.
- The second document is the Hardware Development Manual. It’s a 2.55MB folder that includes all information you need to design a circuit board aligning with littleBits design practices. It includes a neat 18 pages manual and templates for the Bill of Material (BOM) and Product Design Requirement (PRD). A good reading that will make you gain a great amount of time.
- Last download is a 3MB folder packed with circuit templates, Eagle libraries, ULPs, CAM and DRC files. You don’t need it for say to develop your prototype but it can come in handy if you want to get a result as close as possible to the final product. Using these files will also increase your chance to get accepted in the final review phase.
All documentation for the bitLab can be found here.
I would recommend downloading all the documents and spend the time becoming familiar with them. They will be useful along your prototyping journey.
And if you already develop open hardware projects, there is a lot to learn from them as well. They could even inspire you to document your own company guidelines and get more organized.
littleBits also have a github repository with the circuit schematics for all their modules. Don’t hesitate to copy them and build on top of them for your modules idea
Get Help from the bitLab Community
Now that you have all information in hand and a prototype on the way, it’s good to know that you have a few places where you can ask questions and meet other bitLab contributors.
littleBits forums. Go to littleBits forums on the bitLab category to ask your technical questions.
bitLab LIVE is a new show produced by the bitLab team. It’s on air every Tuesday at 4pm EST. It’s a bit in the same spirit than Adafruit live shows but focused on the makers who contribute to littleBits. Fun and informative. Don’t miss it. Upcoming bitLab live shows here.
Happy prototyping, and see you in a few days for part 2 of this guide where I share advice on how to get your proposal ready and voted up by the community.
Share your experience in the comments,