4:23pm

Mon March 10, 2014
All Tech Considered

SXSW: Software, Apps Still Rule But A Hardware Resurgence Is On

Originally published on Mon March 10, 2014 6:59 pm

The task of building your very own toy, or robot, or radio can seem daunting for someone without much background in engineering. But a set of color-coded electronic bits that can be magnetically snapped together called littleBits is aiming to make creating your own electronics easy for everyone. It's like Legos, if only Legos could be connected into circuits that light up, move or make music.

"Circuits in seconds," promises the outside of the box.

LittleBits is the brainchild of founder Ayah Bdeir, an engineer trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We see a lot of kids who are using these to make their own toys, to learn electronics, to play in groups," she says. "But the thing we are excited about is that it's about really democratizing hardware. And democratizing electronics for everyone — designers, inventors, prototypers of any age."

Amid so much talk about apps and software company launches at the South by Southwest festival in Austin is the "maker movement" and the resurgence of hardware — the physical tools and machines of technology — and how to make "making" more accessible. With littleBits, Bdeir and I made a synth kit together in seconds. They're also used to make art installations or prototype projects.

"This has been brewing for a while," Bdeir says. "We need to remember that we are all makers, and touching things with our hands is powerful and inspiring, and some of our best memories growing up are always around things ... . We want everyone to be comfortable making something without being an engineer, quitting my job, taking a six-month learning process."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And it's time for a South by Southwest edition of All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC)

SIEGEL: The Austin, Texas festival includes a huge technology conference called Interactive. Every year, tech industry leaders float big ideas about technology's intersection with culture. We're going to hear about some of this year's themes: The future of play and the future of storytelling.

BLOCK: The conference also had a very serious side today. NSA leaker and fugitive Edward Snowden addressed an audience of thousands in a live video appearance from Russia. He defended his release of thousands of documents that reveal sweeping government surveillance programs.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: When it comes to would I do this again, the answer is absolutely yes. I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, and I saw that the Constitution was violated on a massive scale.

BLOCK: That's Edward Snowden answering questions at South by Southwest today. And we have a full report on that appearance elsewhere in the program.

SIEGEL: And now back to the subject of play at South by Southwest. We're joined by NPR's Elise Hu, who's at the Austin Convention Center. Hi, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hi there, Robert.

SIEGEL: And I should say that hi-tech and play have been a natural combination at least ever since our desktops came with Solitaire software loaded in them. What's new and different at South by Southwest in the world of games and toys?

HU: Well, what's interesting is we're kind of going back in time in a way to electricity hits that maybe even our grandparents played with. And that's this notion of hardware, actually making machines, and previously that was very complicated. But there's one new product that I'm pretty excited about called Little Bits. And if the system of little modular circuits that are color-coded and they snap together with magnets. The magnets are always right, so you would put one color against another color in order for them to snap together. If they resist each other then you know that you're kind of going the wrong direction.

So it's basically like Legos, if only each Lego could be put together to create your own tiny Ferris Wheel or fan or even a robot. So it makes building electronics, which previously had a steep learning curve, a lot simpler.

I was with the founder, Ayah Bdeir this weekend to check it out.

So just to show off Little Bits, Ayah is going to make us a really quick speaker with maybe - within seconds, 'cause they promised circuits within seconds. So let's start a speaker from scratch.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRACKLING AND TONES)

HU: And then you can adjust the volume?

(SOUNDBITE OF TONES)

AYAH BDEIR: So I can adjust the volume. In this case, I'm adjusting the pitch. I'm deciding whether I want to have the waveform to saw tooth or square wave.

HU: And all from attaching how many Little Bits together?

BDEIR: So now, we have four bits. We have a power bit, a sequencer, an oscillator and a speaker.

HU: And after I stopped taping, she added a little light just for kicks. But you can tell there, Robert, just how quickly we made something that lights up or made a sound. And that makes this daunting thought of making your own electronics a lot more accessible and less daunting.

SIEGEL: Well, apart from helping kids fill your home with those wonderful sounds they'll be able to make...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...what is the ostensible educational purpose of this kind of toy?

HU: The idea behind this and making hardware a lot simpler for young people and grown-ups alike to do this, is to show them that they can change their environment. They can light something up or they can make a noise simply. And by doing that, they not only learn about the connection but also get motivated to learn more and make more things. So this is just kind of a stepping stone, if you will.

SIEGEL: It sounds noteworthy here that these are high-tech toys that don't engage a kid with an iPad or a videogame. We're not talking about lots of screen time being invested here.

HU: Yeah, and you hit on a really important trend here, Robert, because it's happening here at South by Southwest but also in the larger tech industry, there's a big return to hardware. You know, we talk a lot about apps that you can see on iPads or software that runs on computers. And that's very different than hardware, the physical machines that you can build.

I bring this up because there's a real maker movement going on in technology that's combining the best elements of coding software with physical objects, like these Little Bits. And so, this product is just one part of it. It's intuitive enough for kids to use it but a lot of adults are also using it to prototype their ideas. Or in our case, try out making music.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONES)

SIEGEL: Or if not music, at least that sound. That's NPR's Elise Hu in Austin, Texas. Thank you, Elise.

HU: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.