Electronics Kits and Bits
Kits make electronics accessible by simplifying along two distinct axis.
The first is component selection. Kits offer a cultivated garden of parts that all work properly with each other, avoiding the bewildering Digikey page or the haphazard component drawers at RadioShack. Different systems stake out different positions along this axis. Squishy Circuits (to the extent that it’s a kit at all) simply offers generic components with fat dough-friendly leads. Hummingbird Robotics boards have easy, labeled terminal blocks and come bundled with commodity parts. At the low end of the spectrum, kits include parts to indicate a stable starting place, but they don’t build fences. Systems that aim for openness create a substrate that still works with plain/“bare wire” components. This covers everything from a simple breadboard to conductive dough and the unpattentable springs of 101 Experiment kids. Forest Mims’ excellent Electronic Learning Lab offers all of these, along with integrated LEDs and potentiometers. The Electronics Learning Lab was a longtime Radioshack stalwart, but is currently, lamentably, out of print.
What restricts learners from selecting or making use of other parts is the way a kit/system decides to simplify connectivity. I suspect that this is also the major area where designers can apply trademark and patent restrictions to their systems in an attempt to prohibit “knock-off” competitors.
Closed systems encapsulate individual components, which improves users’ first circuit experience and ensures that all parts are reusable. However, anyone looking ot replace a missing ingredient or add new ones are locked in to the kit vendor’s store.
Circuit Stickers from Chibitronics occupy an interesting position in this quadrant.
Individual components come on sturdy but flexible pcbs, backed by z-tape reusable adhesive. The basic kit has a wonderfully designed workbook and includes a roll of copper tape on paper, but nothing about the component design restricts how they can be used. Each tiny sticker even has wide solder pads! Chibitronics even includes a spare sheet of conductive backing for components that lose stickiness over time. Jie and Bunny’s design is a marvel of simplicity and economy. Currently, the Chibitronics website offers 24 packs of LED sticks for fifteen bucks. That’s a price lower than the horrific RadioShack markup on standard through hole 5mm LEDs, which no one should ever ever pay, but we often do. The same pricing extends across the Chibitronics line, from the programable Attiny stickers to sensors. Chibitronics offer custom components that are simple to connect without locking the user in an exorbitantly expensive walled garden.
Which brings me to LittleBits.
I’ve been deeply intrigued by and frustrated with LittleBits for about two years. At this point, I think the Reggie Watts commercial for the SynthKit does the best job of capturing the excitement “snap together amazing things!”
Stoked? Great, now look at this.
I’ve heard LittleBits described as a “learning electronics” kit, and never felt it was accurate. Their proprietary magnet-snap connections pushed both simplification factors so far that they seemed to rocket out of the electronics kit quadrant. Components were so simplified that few productive mistakes remained for the user. There’s nothing to observe in a LittleBits creation about how circuits are designed. Then there’s the price. A “class set” of LittleBits rings in at several thousand dollars. I’d seen students enjoy the momentary experience of playing with LittleBits, but since the high price-tag meant that all of the parts went back in the bin at the end of every class, I never saw work pass beyond the “kinda neat” stage.
With the release of the Arduino Bit, I feel like LittleBits has fully abandoned the “learn electronics!” category,or maybe they’ve just hit escape velocity. Instead of a over-engineered electronics kit, they’re offering a portal into psychical computing in a radically divergent form factor. LittleBits offers the same kit benefits (connectivity, part selection) and provides and access ramp to the Arduino “prototyping platform.” LittleBits allows users to focus on the hard fun of designing physical computing systems to make use sensor data, wether through simple logic gates or a full Arduino. Like all other micro-controllers, there’s electricity at work, but the user is hidden away from almost all of the electrical engineering.