LittleBits’ Ayah Bdeir: Making Hardware As Hackable As Code

ReadWriteBuilders is a series of interviews with developers, designers and other architects of the programmable future.

Long before she became the CEO of a tech company, Ayah Bdeir was an electronic artist whose installations shared messages about Arab identity. “Random Search” is an undergarment that records and shares the experience of an airport patdown. “Les Années Lumière,” or “The Years of Light,” visualizes three years of explosions in Lebanon with blinking LED lights on a map.

Bdeir’s creative expression was made possible in part by her background in electronics, which in turn helped inspire her to create LittleBits, an open source system of preassembled, modular circuit components that snap together with magnets. You don’t need to solder circuits, or even stick wires into a breadboard, to be creative with LittleBits. Bdeir’s strategy is to streamline engineering so that everyone can hack hardware almost as easily as software. 

Making Electronics Modular

ReadWrite: Where did the LittleBits idea come from?

Ayah Bdeir: I have a background in computer engineering as an undergrad, and then I did my masters at MIT at the Media Lab. That’s where I, for the first time, learned about this idea of using engineering and technology for creative purposes. You know, being able to make art with electronics or with code or with mechanical engineering.

I started at the Media Lab to make my own artwork using electronics. Interactive installations, wearable technology, activist installations, stuff like that. And then at one point I started to get more interested in how you make this medium, or this material, accessible to other people, that had not, like me, gone through six years of engineering. 

So I wanted to really make electronics the material. And I wanted to make it accessible to anyone, whether you are eight or 88, whether you are a PhD in engineering or an artist. And so the challenge there was to make electronics modular in the way that code has become modular, and you’re able to grab snippets of code that different people wrote, and Google them, and patch them up, and make something more complex that you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do by yourself.

And the second problem was, “How do you make hardware iterative?” With code you can copy-paste, you can move things around, you can see whether something works or not. With electronics, you’re typically going into production practices that are long and take forever, so by the time your experiment comes back, you forgot what you were experimenting with.

And so LittleBits was an idea to make electronics [projects] modular, to make them iterative, to make them creative, and to make them accessible to everybody so that you could use them for invention and creation purposes.

RW: Was it challenging to turn circuits, which are quite complicated for most people, into a toy a child could learn to play with?

AB: It’s been a long process. I’ve been working on LittleBits since 2008, and at the time when I started, there really wasn’t anybody thinking much about modular electronics yet. It was a difficult problem to solve at the time. Now you see more and more people doing it, and it is becoming a more common form factor. But in the beginning, thinking about how to make a “brick” out of electronic [components] was a challenging thing.

Initially it was about thinking about the system, and building it in such a way that every bit would work with every other bit in the system while still not requiring every bit to be a computer. Because if we make each one a computer then it’s like, “OK whatever, we’re recreating computers talking to each other.” But that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to keep it as lo-fi as possible.

So it was about three and a half years of development. Maybe the first six months to a year were working on the system, and then the rest of the time working on the magnetic connector which makes it magical and makes it so fast, and getting it manufactured.

RW: Do you think schools are doing a good job of teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)?

AB: I’m happy that STEM has become more of a popular buzzword and is getting more traction. I myself believe more in STEAM, which is Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math, which is a concept brought on by John Maeda who used to be the president of RISD [the Rhode Island School of Design].

I think it’s super important because I think it starts to break up this idea that there are boundaries between disciplines. If we slice society and slice professions by discipline and say, “You’re an engineer, just do engineering things; you’re a programmer, just do programming things; you’re a designer, just do design things,” that’s not where innovation is going to come from because the solutions lie at the interactions. 

And so I think the concept of STEAM is so important because it starts to expose kids to fields that are technical, that are artistic, that are scientific, at an early age, whether or not they decide to go into science. Even if you’re going to become a poet, why not have a background in math? Even if you’re going to become a mathematician, why not have a background in architecture? These ideas create fluidity between disciplines and I think that’s super important.

Building Blocks For Technology Education

RW: Has LittleBits worked with schools or teachers to implement the kits in the classroom?

AB: Yes. We don’t have an education department per se, we have a very small team—one person in fact—who’s our education account manager. But we have about 1,500 schools that are using littleBits. 

Basically the way it happens is usually a teacher finds LittleBits, buys them, plays with them in their classroom. We’ve heard anything from science class to arts and crafts class to math class to even design class at the university level. And then typically they’ll come back and they’ll buy more, and then they’ll show it to other teachers at their school and just like that, we’ve started to get more and more schools on board, from a very sort of bottom-up campaign.

And we have on the website people sharing projects that they’ve made. Some are super simple that are shared by kids, some are much more advanced that are shared by teachers, so you can really pick and choose what you want to be involved with. 

RW: All of your models are open source. Why was that was important?

AB: I’m a very, very big proponent of open source. I’ve been involved with the open hardware movement for a very long time. It used to be that open hardware was this sort of disparate group of people all over the world that were interested in learning from the best practices of software, and applying it to hardware.

In early 2008, I became a Creative Commons fellow. And my research there was focused on how do we apply open source to hardware when in hardware, the cost of copying is not zero, the cost of sharing is not zero, and there is financial investment as well as time investment when you create something new. So when you give it up, what are you left with? 

I did research there and started this project called the Open Source Hardware Definition, where I brought together some of the leaders in the open hardware movement, and we sat together and said, “Let’s create a statement of principle for what ‘open hardware’ means.” And two years later, this statement of principle for this open hardware definition is now the basis for an open hardware license that CERN used for the Large Hadron Collider.

I co-founded the Open Hardware Summit, that became the seminal open hardware event of the year that happens every year. And so for me, it’s difficult to say sort of, “Why did you make this open source?” For me, it’s been a very big part of my life for the past many years, because I operate under the assumption that if I share this innovation, people will make better things. Also, it goes against the patent industry which is very territorial. 

That being said, there is always a thin line that you have to tread when you’re working with hardware because there are large sums of money at stake. And there are people that copy without crediting. For us, LittleBits is a fine line where we put all the circuits on the website, you can download them, you can make them for yourself, but the magnetic connector, for example, is not open source. That’s something that we want to keep as a competitive advantage.

How To Make Hacking Gender-Neutral

RW: Does LittleBits appeal to children of both genders? Is it more popular with girls or boys?

AB: This is one of the hidden missions of the company—to get more … I mean, in general to make electronics more universal and get everybody interested, but also particularly  get more girls. 

The idea is that if we make products gendered, and we make a product for girls and a product for boys, then we’re going to perpetuate a stereotype. So the way we approach this is by making products that are gender neutral. And they’re very intentionally gender neutral, it’s a lot of hard work to make something gender neutral because the opportunities to lock in on gender, you know, there are many of them. 

So we make decisions that are affecting color, look. That are affecting collections of bits. Sample projects that we show. How we showcase heroes and inventors that have made things. We use them to select kinds of projects—things that are not only robotic, only handheld, things that are more, for example, situational.

We try to create all these situations that allow every person to find their own flavor and so, as a result, we get 50 percent that are interested in LittleBits [i.e., roughly half of LittleBits users are girls], an astronomical increase from particular electronic and technological companies.

RW: On that same note, as a woman CEO, how do you feel about being a role model to women joining the technology field? I’m sure you get asked this all the time. 

AB: I do. I get asked this all the time.

My main thing is that I try not to think about the fact that I’m a woman. For me, I really just try to do the best work I can, and to compete, and if I spend time and energy thinking about “This happened because I’m a woman,” or “This person said this because I’m a woman,” or “This thing didn’t work out because I’m a woman,” it’s just wasted energy and time and mental space. So I try to use that toward more productive things. 

That being said, obviously there’s still a lot of work to be done on getting younger women involved in technology and also getting established women to explore careers in technology. So that’s something that I am involved with through talks and mentorships and things like that.  

RW: Do you think the tech community needs to do more to empower women in tech?

AB: It’s really focusing on stories, to be honest. 

I don’t agree very much with conferences that are woman-focused. For instance, I got invited to speak at DLDWomen. That’s not something I think needs to be separate. Why have one that’s focused on women? Let’s just put more women on stage at DLD. Or TEDWomen, same thing. Let’s put more women on stage at TED instead of having TEDWomen. That kind of thing. For me that means showcasing more women, but on the world stage, not on their own stage.

RW: How does littleBits address that?

AB: Let’s take an example of a classroom where there are girls and boys, and they’re trying to do an electronics class. If you start by saying, “We’re going to make a robot,” you’re going to attract more likely than not, more boys into that exercise, and if you do attract girls, you’re going to attract a certain type of girl that anyway was attracted to technology, whether or not you did something about it. 

Whereas if you say, “We’re going to learn electronics because you can make a robot or you can make, I don’t know, an attractive display, or you can make a flashlight, or you can make a blinking shoe,” those are things that boys and girls are equally interested in, and then each person finds what they’re passionate about. If they’re passionate about functional things, they might want to make a flashlight and a hat that has a fan that responds to temperature. That’s not gendered, but it does show a certain ingenuity of a kid. Versus somebody else might want to say, “I want to make a house.” But that doesn’t mean it’s a girl that wants to make a house, because it could also be architectural. 

It’s sticking these kinds of examples and lessons that we showcase that make it really diverse but not gendered. 

RW: What’s on the horizon for LittleBits?

AB: We have a couple of very exciting products launching in the next months, a lot of key bits that are going to be very important to allow more programmability, more intelligence, more logic, and also showcasing more of this platform. LittleBits as a platform for invention as well as a product.

RW: Will there ever be LittleBits for adults? I’ve been working on an hardware project and wires have been a big hassle. It’d be nice to have magnets.

AB: What are you working on?

RW: A waterproof temperature sensor with an alert. Probably something kids wouldn’t do.

AB: Stay tuned. There’s something very special coming that will solve exactly that problem, and it will do it in minutes. 

People tend to think of littleBits as a toy, but it’s actually a very complex and powerful engineering tool. So for people who are trying to prototype, people that are trying to do complex engineering, we see more and more people using them for prototyping and for iterating, and for creating complex mechanical things as well. You can do your thing with it and explore, and there are a lot of things you can get out of it.

Lead image by Flickr user Joi Ito, CC 2.0; headshot of Ayah Bdeir and image of LittleBits kit courtesy of LittleBits; LittleBits project image by Flickr user Ultra-lab, CC 2.0

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