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littleBits modules are somewhat like a Lego set.
littleBits modules are somewhat like a Lego set.

LEGOs for the digital age

DIY kits such as the Lego-like littleBits can get your child hooked to electronics

In the days when my work took me to other countries, I would make it a point to go to a toy shop to buy boxes of Lego bricks for my school-going son. There would be other toys too, but there would always be a new Lego set.

He finished school several years ago, but his Lego pieces are all in a large box and, when inspired by an idea, he pulls it out to make some contraption. Recently, when I told him about a review of a new Lego series called Mindstorms EV3 in Time magazine, he was quite excited and said he would definitely take a look when it’s launched later this year.

As I walked the aisles of massive toy shops abroad (I must admit I had fun looking around), I would often search for electronics do-it-yourself (DIY) kits that would be fun to assemble, as well as explain how things work. But the electronics box sets even in the larger toy shops were quite boring and primitive. There was no scope for creativity.

I wanted an electronics kit that would be more like a Lego set—pieces that one could put together to make interesting things. Among all the creative DIY toys on the market, Lego was without doubt the best. In fact, it still is the only toy of its kind.

I’ve now found an ingenious kit which does just that: It’s called littleBits, a set of modules that can be snapped together like Lego bricks to create simple electronics devices such as a dimmer or a buzzer or, depending on your imagination, more complex things.

Each colour-coded piece is a miniature circuit board and performs a unique function—light, sound, sensor, motor and so on. Join them in a certain order and they perform different functions. Playing with littleBits is as simple as making something with Lego bricks. It doesn’t require any soldering or wiring. The littleBits starter kit costs $89 ( 4,830) at (it’s also available at Amazon, but at a higher price), and just as in Lego, you can buy add-on parts, one, two or more at a time.

I first heard of littleBits when someone sent me a link to a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk by its inventor, Ayah Bdeir, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab postgraduate. She says in her talk, “We want to encourage a world of creators, of inventors, of contributors, because this world that we live in, this interactive world, is ours." In the hands of a hobbyist, it has amazing potential.

Just like Lego bricks, littleBits modules are easy to handle (they are also great to look at) and you can use the kit to create any number of interesting things. Bdeir says in her mission statement that she created littleBits “to make everyone into an inventor". This is building blocks for the next generation—a fine tool to get young students into electronics.

For more experienced electronics DIYers, there are other customizable kits like Raspberry Pi and Arduino (I wrote about them in this column a few months ago). The former is what they call a barebone computer and the latter, a circuit board with a chip that can be programmed to do many different functions. But they both require a basic knowledge of programming and electronics components.

Raspberry Pi, Arduino and littleBits are all recent inventions; they encourage creativity and are innovative learning tools. But unlike Raspberry Pi and Arduino, littleBits works without a computer. Open the box, insert a battery, and you are all set.

It’s the kind of toy you should buy if you want to get your children (age 8 and above) interested in electronics. It’s also a kit that will appeal to a teacher, hobbyist or DIYer.

Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.

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