We used littleBits with our group from Reading College to introduce technology and ways of activating sounds, light and smells from the smell box (below). They worked well in many senses, but there were a number of issues with using them:
- Each of the littleBits components has a pair of magnets on each face to hold the bits together when assembling circuits. Most of the bits have two faces, but it is difficult to tell which is for input and which is for output. If it is the wrong way round, then the objects will not snap together.
- It can be difficult to tell whether the component is the right way up, as the top and bottom are similar in appearance. If they are the wrong way up, then you cannot connect the bits together.
- The affordances of the bits are often unclear, so it is not always obvious what to do with them. For example, the microswitch has a small roller attached to a metal arm, and which should be pushed inwards (i.e. towards the body of the bit) to operate. But this was often pulled outwards instead. The microphone trigger also caused some confusion until it was demonstrated. As it looks like a button, it was pressed rather than talking or clapping close to it.
- Some additional cues would help people to understand whether the bits were connected correctly. For instance, the inclusion of a small indicator LED on the edge of each bit that illuminates when the two bits are properly connected might be helpful.
- Controls on the littleBits objects are very small and difficult to operate if you have limited manual dexterity. Although the two group members in the images above (See Figure 2) managed to work the controls (including using the tiny screwdriver provided to adjust the sensitivity of one of the sensors), it is clear that they would benefit greatly from larger, more robust, controls.
- Whilst not a criticism of the design, the bits are small which can be a problem for our co-researchers, many of whom have limited motor control or manual dexterity, and may cope better with objects which are larger.
To address some of these issues, we designed a base with which to attach the littleBits components, increasing the size of the platform which might make the objects easier to handle. The initial prototype was made out of balsa wood to get an idea of the size, and to address issue 1 above we decided on a form which is tessellated, so that you cannot get the bit the wrong way round. Because the original components are clamped to the top of the bases, you cannot get them upside down either, which addresses issue 2:
The image below shows two input devices, two output devices and the power block:
Close up of a bigger bit which extends the LED bit:
A simple circuit using the Bigger Bits:
The next image shows a close up of the connectors that were used. One end of the base has three spring connectors (these are just spring pins, with wires soldered onto them), and the other has a connector is made from model engineering brass tube (1.1mm diam):
The image below shows a close up of the static connectors made from brass tubing. The magnets are 4mm x 4mm diameter. On reflection 5mm x 5mm diameter would be better, and hold the blocks together more firmly.
A view of the underside of the base shows the (rather crude) connections. These actually worked well (to my surprise!). The only difficulty with connections were the brackets which connected to the littleBits themselves. As the bits have very small and fragile connectors, a few were damaged in the process of making this, and so the brackets are being redesigned to include very light spring connectors (similar to the ones used by littleBits).
The next stage of development will include the following:
- lightweight spring connectors built into the brackets, which should help to provide a better contact to the littleBits components
- possibly led indicators on one side of the base which illuminates when the connection is properly made (I’m not entirely sure how much this would help, and needs to be trialled first)
- slight redesign of base to use smaller spring pins (i.e. not quite so long) which will press fit into the base, together with off-the-shelf static pins, rather than brass tube
- removal of some of the material from the base to make it a little lighter and also save on the cost of 3D printing
- 3D printed in different colours to reflect the purpose of the component (i.e. blue for power, green for output, etc)
- modify the sound box and smell box (below) to use the new type of connectors
If you have any comments or suggestions, then please contact me.