littleBits go LARGE

Design for All Award

We are very pleased that we won an  International Design for All Foundation Award for the development of the extension to littleBits. The award was given for our research Making Electronics Accessible to People with Learning Disabilities. We told them all about the research we are all doing to make the sensory objects workshops more accessible for our Co-Researchers. The picture below shows our award. [For main Sensory Objects project please go to Sensory Objects]


Design for All

As our project “Making Electronics Accessible to People with Learning Disabilities” satisfied the criteria for Design for All ( we can now use the logo in association with this part of the project:

Design for All

Design for All

Development of littleBits base

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

Prototype made form balsa wood Prototype made from balsa wood

The image below shows two input devices, two output devices and the power block:

Bigger Bits Two input, two output and power

Close up of a bigger bit which extends the LED bit:

LED Bigger Bit LED Bigger Bit

A simple circuit using the Bigger Bits:

A simple circuit 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):

Spring pin connectors Spring pin connectors

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.

Brass tube static connectors Brass tube static connectors

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).

onnections to spring pins and static connectors Connections to spring pins and static connectors

The next stage of development will include the following:

  1. lightweight spring connectors built into the brackets, which should help to provide a better contact to the littleBits components
  2. 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)
  3. 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
  4. removal of some of the material from the base to make it a little lighter and also save on the cost of 3D printing
  5. 3D printed in different colours to reflect the purpose of the component (i.e. blue for power, green for output, etc)
  6. 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.

7 Responses to littleBits go LARGE

  1. Pingback: littleBits go LARGE | Extra Sensory Objects

  2. HBetar says:

    Amazing job! Congrats for the awards. I was trying to make something similar but not for littlebits; just a generic magnet connector. Can you please suggest websites to buy the magnets and spring pins from? Also, how did you attach the magnets? More success to you.

    • ndhollinworth says:

      The magnets came form a company called Magnet Expert, sold through Amazon UK. They are simply a press fit into the plastic base. The spring pins were a little more difficult to obtain, but I found these one at Farnell,UK. See Good luck with your project, and please do get in contact if you have other queries, or want to share your ideas.

  3. Pingback: Sensory Objects Research Presented at the Inclusive Museum Conference - Sensory Objects

  4. Pingback: International Design for All Foundation Award 2014 - Sensory Objects

  5. Pingback: Sensory Objects | DCN - Disability Cooperative Network for Museums

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