For those looking to tinker with electronics, add buzzers, lights or sensors to an object, or teach kids (or themselves) the basics of circuitry, programming, and micro-controllers, it's not as hard as you might think.
There are a number of kits available that make such projects relatively easy and accessible. Arduino, for example, offers a fairly simple hardware and software platform for people to get started.
But even with the simplicity of Arduino, there's still a rather huge barrier to entry when it comes to working with hardware and software at this level -- particularly for those with no engineering
background. Despite the openness of platforms like Arduino, the idea of wiring, soldering, and programming can be overwhelming.
As the electronics we use in our daily lives get more complicated, this turning away -- in frustration, ignorance, or fear -- is increasingly troublesome. We rely more on the very devices that are becoming like "black boxes": impenetrable. We don't understand what goes on "under the hood" of many of the objects that are most important to our lives (our cars, our smartphones).
As an antidote, the Maker Movement -- led by the people behind the Maker Faire -- and its call for hands-on experimentation is working to encourage the general public to start making things by hand, as are platforms like Arduino.
A newcomer to the movement is littleBits, a library of pre-assembled circuit boards that snap together with tiny magnets. There's no soldering, no wiring and no programming required. The circuit boards in a littleBits kit have unique functions -- a power component, a pressure sensor, a button, for example -- that can simply be snapped together.
Founder Ayah Bdeir, who's just been named a 2012 TED Fellow, told me that she wanted to break down some of the concepts behind building electronics -- things like electricity and interaction -- and instead focus on a "simple, playful building box." She said that she wanted littleBits to be able to "enable people with little expertise in the field to be able to speak the language."
An artist and an engineer, Bdeir worked on a similar project to littleBits during her tenure at MIT Media Lab but realized after working with other artists and designers with no experience in electronics but with a desire to build complex electronic installations that these people didn't want to learn about schematics. They just wanted to "make it work."
But with an easy way to make these sorts of projects work, littleBits also provides a great on-ramp for people who might otherwise be too intimidated to learn more about tinkering. And by creating such simple and easy-to-use tools, littleBits may be empowering a whole new group of people to realize that they can actually make, build, and use these tools in their creative endeavors.
It's much like using Popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners to teach kids how to build on a small, easy scale. Except these little magnetic circuits fast-forward building to the 21st century.