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Featured at the 10th annual Maker Faire Bay Area.

We talked to Kristin Salomon and Paul Rothman from littleBits about the littleBits module system, BitLabs, and the towering analog arcade machine — built from over 500 littleBits modules — they brought along to the Bay Area Maker Faire that impressed the crowd, and won them an Editor’s Choice blue ribbon.

When littleBits first came onto the market — like a lot of people I think — I more or less dismissed it as a toy. It looked like an interesting platform for younger children to start thinking about electronics, but it wasn’t something that would let you build or even prototype real products. The last year has proved me wrong.

[youtube https://youtu.be/2dcPd_H9gnQ]

The first sign of this was the release of the Arduino bit a year ago now at last year’s Maker Faire Bay Area. Based around the ATmega 32U4 — the same chip as the Arduino Leonardo — the tiny board is programmable through the normal Arduino IDE, but also has some unique bit-like features. It’s definitely a littleBit that also happens to be an Arduino, rather than an Arduino that happens to look like a littleBit.

However it was the release of the cloudBit module that convinced me that my initial impressions were wrong, that you could use the system to build real things, not just toys. But I wasn’t really sure where the system was heading until the launch of the littleBits Smart Home Kit, and of course the bitLab.

The bitLab is an interesting model, a template perhaps, and one I think we’ll see duplicated — Pebble with its Smartstrap is the obvious candidate to do something similar.

Building a hardware ecosystem is hard, and the new littleBits protoBit — and beyond that their hardware development kit — offers a way into a system of hardware, and a powerful lever to drive adoption for an entire category of devices. It means you don’t have to invent everything yourself.

It’s a rare programmer that starts at the ground level and doesn’t use some sort of open source library somewhere in their code. Until recently hardware had been missing that. But now there’s littleBits.