Why pay $250 for a Nest Wi-Fi-connected thermostat when you can build your own? It sounds complicated—the kind of thing that might require at least a little bit of engineering experience—but it's not. With the littleBits Cloud Module, a building block for Internet-connected gadgets announced at this week's TED conference, that Nest-like thermostat just became a lot easier to build.
"The Internet of Things" is one of those trendy, nebulous terms that many people kind of understand, but few people entirely grasp. Ayah Bdeir, founder and CEO of littleBits—a modern-day Lego set that lets anyone build electronic devices—had her first experience with the Internet of Things (physical devices that connect to the Internet and each other, like the aforementioned Nest thermostat) about a decade ago, when she encountered Internet 0, a protocol that allows users to control physical objects remotely.
"I went from being impressed to inspired to feeling incredibly empowered," she said in her TED Fellows talk.
And yet, when Bdeir founded littleBits in 2008, she didn't anticipate adding on an Internet-connected module. The first few years, she explained to me in an interview, were all about building the library of open source bits modules, including magnetic sensors, motors, and more.
But Bdeir always knew that she wanted the company to eventually focus on "power"—giving people the ability to use bits modules not just for fun little projects but for complex endeavors. She speculates that people could even use the Cloud module, combined with other modules, to prototype products for new companies. The "power" phase of littleBits is, she says, about creating things that are "more than just playtools." It's about democratizing the field of electronics.
LittleBits already sells some pretty powerful tools. The Synth Kit, an analog modular synthesizer kit, is another example of what the company is doing in its self-described power phase. Check it out below:
The Cloud module is easy to set up, according to Bdeir: just snap it onto other magnetic modules, and hook it up to a Wi-Fi network. The module can connect to other bits, and to the web. "You can make your own Jawbone, or make your own new thing that doesn't exist yet at all," she says.
In her talk, Bdeir gave examples of Cloud module projects built in-house and by alpha testers, including an automated fish feeder and a system that lets users send an email to a thermostat to crank up the heat.
The Cloud module is in limited beta at the moment; it launches to the public early in the third quarter of 2014.