The magnetic, interconnecting circuit boards that make up LittleBits' library of electronic modules make it easy to build all sorts of neat (and noisy) devices with almost no technical knowledge at all -- but if you want to create something that connects to the cloud, you're out of luck. Well, you were: today LittleBits is announcing the Cloud Bit, a new module that, as company CEO and founder Ayah Bdeir puts it, allows builders to "just add internet" to almost anything. Bdeir tells me that it's gives the average person an easy and open way to contribute to the Internet of Things without wasting time prototyping devices from scratch. She also says that the module is a landmark in changing the perception of LittleBits from toy, to tool.
"I don't like the LEGO comparison," she says, bemoaning a misconception that LittleBits is little more than an educational child's toy. LEGO was an inspiration when she started the company, she admits, but so was C++ and more complicated hardware projects. "In the beginning... a lot of the stuff you could do with it was sort of more boyish and playful, so that's what the world saw us as. Since the beginning of the year we've been launching more powerful modules." More complex modules -- like the Arduino module and today's WiFi-enabled Cloud Bit -- raise the ceiling of complexity for potential LittleBits projects. It's her hope that the product will be used for rapid prototyping of new ideas in addition to being a fun hobby toy. "If you wanted to recreate a Nest or recreate a Sonos or a DropCam, you could. If you wanted to create the next billion dollar idea, you could do that as well." It's about versatility, and the more modules LittleBits creates, the more it has.
That said, Bdeir is quick to clarify that LittleBits isn't competing with Nest -- but explains that LittleBits projects equipped with the new WiFi module can be configured to perform similar functions. As an example, the CEO shows me a simple LittleBits build that makes up a smart doorbell. It's little more than a power source, a button, an LED light and the new WiFi module, but its core functionality hangs on the last component. When the button is pressed, the Cloud Bit sends a signal to IFTTT, which uses a custom script to send the user a text message. Another demo build shows me how a user can create setups to toggle lights or unlock doors (using the appropriate Bits, of course) by activating the Cloud Bit remotely using an included web app or custom API. In total, the new module can communicate three ways, Bdeir tells me: bit to web, web to bit or bit to bit -- allowing separate LittleBit builds to talk directly to each other.
Bdeir says the Cloud Module is the easiest way to create an internet-connected device, and it really is pretty easy. Using the same components that will be available in the $99 LittleBits Cloud Starter Bundle launching today, I was able to create my own SMS doorbell in a matter of minutes. It's something I lack the technical skills to build the traditional way, and it certainly did come together much faster than it would have if I had to design and prototype it myself. I can see where Bdeir is coming from: with the right LittleBits modules, it would be easy to create a working model of a Kickstater-worthy idea before launching into proper development.
Between the Cloud Bit, the Arduino module and the 262 other components available in LittleBits' Pro Library, there's more than enough technology available to remove the product from the "toy" perception it started out with (heck, even we were guilty of making that 'LEGO' comparison). That said, it's still a fun product to tinker with, even if you aren't building the next big Kickstarter success. In addition to launching the $59 Cloud Bit module, the company says that its products will be hitting retail for the first time this fall, and will be available at 2,000 Radio Shack locations by the end of the year.