This year’s Consumer Electronics Show was largely dominated by home automation and the Internet of Things, a concept in which virtually every aspect of your home – from your front door and coffee maker to your thermostat and dryer – is automated and / or connected to the Internet. Or in other words, nearly everything we saw in The Jetsons is a reality today.
Retrofitting an existing home with all of these nifty new IoT gadgets, as you can imagine, isn’t exactly cheap. A Nest Learning Thermostat, for example, will run you $250 while connected appliances such as a refrigerator can set you back upwards of $3,000.
Amenities like being able to remotely adjust the temperature inside your home or receiving a text when the laundry is done certainly sound appealing, but are they really all they’re cracked up to be? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just try these features out for a week or two before committing to shelling out hundreds or thousands on a standalone IoT-enabled device?
With littleBits’ new Smart Home Kit, you can do just that.
For the uninitiated among us, littleBits is an ever-growing open source library of small electronic modules that easily connect together. Created by Ayah Bdeir, it started as a tool to help designers incorporate electronics into the prototyping process. Today, it’s much more than that. Think of them as Lego bricks for the iPad generation.
The Smart Home Kit we’ll be looking at today is tailor-made for home automation projects. It includes 14 modules and 11 accessories, enabling a vast array of creations that can add smart functionality to all sorts of appliances and gadgets you already own, or create entirely new ones.
The simplicity of littleBits is perhaps its biggest selling point. It is light years above the old way of building electronics, breadboarding, as there is no soldering involved – everything simply snaps together with magnets. What’s more, a background in electrical engineering isn’t a prerequisite which makes it ideal for newcomers of virtually any age.
The littleBits Smart Home Kit is packaged in a high-quality box that doubles as its storage container complete with magnetic lid. Inside, you’ll find each of the 14 modules in its own bay as well as the AC Switch. Beneath the main tray is a box containing the USB power adapter, two mounting boards, a microSD adapter, a pair of plastic screwdrivers and six adhesive shoes.
The kit indicates I was also supposed to receive a set of servo accessories but they were nowhere to be found. I can only assume that, with this being a review sample, they simply got left out by accident by the last reviewer.
The modules that come in the Smart Home Kit include the synth speaker, IR transmitter, bright LED, number, temperature sensor, threshold, button, sound trigger, light sensor, MP3 player, USB power, cloudBit, two-way split and a servo.
Modules in Detail
As you can see, all of the modules feature an attractive white PCB with easy-to-read descriptions printed right on the board. And unlike something you might build on your own, all of the circuits look professionally-made and nothing feels cheap or shoddy.
Modules are color-coded into one of four categories for easy recognition. Everything starts with a blue module which supplies the power necessary to get you up and running. Pink modules represent inputs and include things like buttons, switches and sensors. They act as they eyes and ears of whatever you build.
Orange modules fall into the wire category. These modules help you extend a project, branch it out, change directions or add wireless capabilities to your project. Last but not least are the green modules, the outputs. Consisting of lights, motors, audio and more, these are the bits that generally make things happen.
While most modules are self-explanatory, one module in particular – the threshold – left me scratching my head as to its exact purpose. That’s where littleBits’ website came in extremely handy. The site features a general description and geek speak (a full technical breakdown) on each module and often times, you also get a YouTube video that goes into even more detail.
A description of each included module can also be found in the included quick start guide; I simply missed this initially.
Building with littleBits
I’m not the most creative person in the world. Fortunately, you don’t have to be to use littleBits. Building functional projects is so easy, a child could do it. In fact, that’s one of their key demographics but we’ll get to that in a bit. For now, it’s time to create something smart.
Following along in the quick start guide, I was encouraged to build my first circuit. It consisted of a USB power module, the button module and the bright LED module. Within seconds, I’d created my first project as the modules simply snapped together. Making sure the USB cable was attached to the power adapter and plugged into the wall, I pressed the button on the module button and voila, the LED lit right up -- extremely bright, might I add.
Moving right along, I built a thermometer using the USB power module, the temperature sensor module and the number module. On the number module, I made sure to set the adjustable switch to “value” and sure enough, an accurate temperature reading was displayed on it.
I then constructed an MP3 player which consisted of the USB power module, the button module and the MP3 player. I could have stopped here and used a set of headphones but I elected to add the synth speaker module to test its quality.
On the back of the MP3 module is a slot for a microSD card (a 4GB card is included). Beforehand, I used the SD card adapter to load a few tracks onto the microSD card.
Pressing the button once starts playback while pressing the forward or backwards button skips a track or goes back to the previous track as you’d expect. A dial on the synth speaker module controls the volume level and as I discovered, you can add 12dB of gain by simultaneously pressing the back and forward buttons.
The sound quality actually wasn’t too bad from the synth speaker, all things considered. I tried the headphone jack and again, I was pretty impressed with what I heard. It’s no match for a decent standalone MP3 player, your computer or a smartphone / tablet, but it gets the job done.