New York-based engineer and interactive artist Ayah Bdeir is founder and CEO of littleBits, an open source library of electronic modules that snap together with magnets, no soldering, wiring, or programming necessary. Ayah first exhibited littleBits at Maker Faire Bay Area in 2009 and since, littleBits has won over 14 toy awards, been featured on TED, BBC, Forbes, and Popular Science, and called “Lego for the iPad generation” by Bloomberg TV. In 2011, littleBits was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art for their permanent collection, and they just unveiled a littleBits-driven fully robotic window display (see video below).
Ayah has a masters from the MIT Media Lab, has been granted fellowships at Eyebeam and Creative Commons, has taught graduate classes at NYU and Parsons, helped spearhead the first open hardware definition that was adopted by CERN for their Open Hardware License, and co-chaired the inaugural Open Hardware Summit. She’s spoken several times at Maker Faire and lectured at MAKE’s Hardware Innovation Workshop. In 2012 she was awarded the prestigious TED fellowship as one of the top 25 innovators of the year. Ayah is also founder of Karaj, Beirut’s lab for experimental art, architecture, and technology.
One project you’re particularly proud of: 1. littleBits. It’s hard to believe it started as small cardboard prototypes with copper tape to explore the idea of making electronics modular, to now a library of electronics, sold in over 60 countries and as of this week, fully robotic window displays at the world’s most prominent design museum store! On April 9th, we unveiled “littleBits Make Big Things Happen,” two window installations at the MoMA stores in New York. The windows showcase large kinetic installations made entirely with littleBits, not a single other robotic kit or motor platform. I was stunned to see littleBits being so powerful!
Two past mistakes you’ve learned the most from: 1. Underestimating the complexity of the manufacturing process. It takes a lot to make physical products. Even after you have a perfectly designed a working prototype, turning it into a manufacturable product is a whole different ballgame!
2. Thinking that I ever had to work with someone I didn’t like. We spend too much time working, and I give too much heart to my work to be working with people that I don’t love, respect, and enjoy being around. No matter how experienced the person is, if they don’t share the same ethos, I don’t have to work with them, and that’s totally fine.
A closeup of the littleBits used in the MoMA display.
Three new ideas that have excited you most lately: 1. Ambush learning. It’s a term I accidentally coined that makes me super excited. It’s this idea that we can create entertaining products or playful building blocks for kids, get them to start making projects, and then they start asking questions and seeking knowledge without even knowing it.
2. Open hardware. A few years ago, “open hardware” represented a community that was nascent and brimming with potential. I co-founded the Open Hardware Summit with Alicia Gibb, and the first time around we knew pretty much everyone that applied to speak or present their open hardware work. Less than 2 years later, the community has turned into a movement and people are involved all over the world and doing incredible new work in hardware and design.
3. The “vintage” movement. I love that the world is appreciating the old (somewhat) over the new, acknowledging and getting inspired by what has come before us, what is handmade, and what is physical. I absolutely love the tactile and think some of the freshest ideas come from the most banal objects from our past.
Ayah creating with littleBits. Photo by Zack Dezon.
Four tools you can’t live without: 1. Moleskine. I carry the little notebook everywhere, and I love going back and looking at notes I had years prior — ideas always get better with age.
2. Blackberry. Yes, judge me all you want, I cannot live without my Blackberry Bold and am patiently waiting for the new Blackberry with a keyboard.
3. Laser cutter. It’s my favorite fabrication tool in the world. Expensive, but incredibly versatile!
4. Adobe InDesign. I have been using it to prepare presentations, and it is so powerful and makes everything look better. I now officially hate PowerPoint.
Five people/things that have inspired your work: 1. Arthur Ganson, the brilliant kinetic artist and roboticist.
2. Sol Lewitt, the incredible artist, who brings together the most intricate computation with the most analog of art forms. I absolutely love his work.
3. New York. I get so much energy out of being in New York every day. Inspiration really is all around. The city has a way of bringing together design, fashion, business, artisanry, artistry, the pulse of the world, really.
4. The littleBits team. I sometimes am running around not paying attention and then see a project that the team is working on. From cute to soulful, they take littleBits to where I never even thought, and it really brings me a lot of happiness.
5. Adam Bly, my fiance and one of my best friends. He is an entrepreneur (started Seed magazine, visualizing.org), thinker, and inspires me to think of my work as a vehicle to make big ideas happen in the world.