New York City startup littleBits, which makes snap-together electronic modules for budding tinkerers, is wading into the ever-deepening sea of hardware configured for the Internet-of-Things. Those who want to investigate this hardware first hand should have no trouble making an impulse purchase, because the company’s $99 kit of modules for assembling Internet-connected gizmos will soon start selling at Radio Shack stores.
The heart of this kit is what littleBits calls the “cloud bit” module, which snaps together with the company’s other modules using special magnetic connectors. So, you can quickly add a cloud-bit module to something you've created with the company's other input and output modules—buttons, lights, motors, and so forth. The point of the cloud-bit module is to connect what you have assembled to the Internet in a way that allows you to control your creation using a littleBits cloud account.
How exactly does the cloud-bit module work? And how is if different from, say, the Electric Imp, a similar device that’s allowed tinkerers to connect hardware to the Internet since its introduction in 2012?
A little digging on the littleBits website reveals a few more pertinent details. The cloud-bit module is a diminutive Linux computer with a non-integral Wi-Fi adapter plugged into it. But it’s not a general-purpose Linux computer like the Raspberry Pi. Rather, it has just one mission: To connect up to littleBits’s servers. Accomplishing that mission requires that you first connect the cloud-bit module to your local Wi-Fi network.
The digital generation is well enough acquainted with connecting to Wi-Fi networks that this should be no big deal, even for a child. The challenge here is that the cloud-bit module has no user interface—no touch screen or keyboard. Actually, it does have a very minimal interface: a setup button and a colored LED indicator light. But that’s enough to do the job. You merely press the setup button, and the cloud-bit module configures its on-board Wi-Fi adapter to become an access point, meaning that when you scan the airwaves with your computer or phone, you’ll see a new wireless network created by the cloud-bit module. You can now connect to the cloud-bit module and, using just a browser, give it the SSID and password it needs to connect to your usual Wi-Fi network as a client device.
It’s a clever solution for a common problem—configuring a wireless device to connect to a Wi-Fi network when that device has no real user interface. The Electric Imp makes use of a different, and in my view more clumsy, strategy, requiring a special phone app to flash the screen of your phone while you hold it against the Imp to convey the needed setup information.
Each of the littleBits cloud-bit modules has its own unique code, which you no doubt have to provide when you sign on for a cloud account with the company. This allows the company’s servers to associate you with the hardware you have purchased, and you can start to issue it commands over the Internet.
Although this capability in itself would add an additional level of enjoyment to a littleBits project, more serious fun, I would think, could be had by taking advantage of the partnership that littleBits has forged with IFTTT, a Web service for connecting other Web services. Properly set up, you could have, say, your collection of littleBits modules play your favorite team’s fight song every time ESPN posts breaking news for your team.