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TED2012

Ayah Bdeir: Building blocks that blink, beep and teach

February 27, 2012

Imagine a set of electronics as easy to play with as Legos. TED Fellow Ayah Bdeir introduces littleBits, a set of simple, interchangeable blocks that make programming as simple and important a part of creativity as snapping blocks together.

Ayah Bdeir - Engineer and artist
Ayah Bdeir is an engineer and artist, and is the founder of littleBits and karaj, an experimental art, architecture and technology lab in Beirut. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
This may sound strange,
00:15
but I'm a big fan of the concrete block.
00:17
The first concrete blocks were manufactured in 1868
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with a very simple idea:
00:22
modules made of cement of a fixed measurement
00:24
that fit together.
00:27
Very quickly concrete blocks became
00:29
the most-used construction unit in the world.
00:31
They enabled us to to build things that were larger than us,
00:34
buildings, bridges,
00:36
one brick at a time.
00:38
Essentially concrete blocks had become
00:40
the building block of our time.
00:42
Almost a hundred years later in 1947,
00:45
LEGO came up with this.
00:47
It was called the Automatic Binding Brick.
00:49
And in a few short years,
00:52
LEGO bricks took place in every household.
00:54
It's estimated that over 400 billion bricks have been produced --
00:57
or 75 bricks for every person on the planet.
01:00
You don't have to be an engineer
01:03
to make beautiful houses, beautiful bridges, beautiful buildings.
01:05
LEGO made it accessible.
01:08
LEGO has essentially taken the concrete block, the building block of the world,
01:10
and made it into the building block
01:13
of our imagination.
01:15
Meanwhile the exact same year,
01:17
at Bell Labs the next revolution was about to be announced,
01:19
the next building block.
01:22
The transistor was a small plastic unit
01:24
that would take us from a world
01:26
of static bricks piled on top of each other
01:28
to a world where everything was interactive.
01:30
Like the concrete block,
01:32
the transistor allows you to build
01:34
much larger, more complex circuits, one brick at a time.
01:36
But there's a main difference:
01:39
The transistor was only for experts.
01:41
I personally don't accept this,
01:43
that the building block of our time
01:45
is reserved for experts,
01:47
so I decided to change that.
01:49
Eight years ago when I was at the Media Lab,
01:52
I started exploring this idea
01:54
of how to put the power of engineers
01:56
in the hands of artists and designers.
01:58
A few years ago I started developing littleBits.
02:00
Let me show you how they work.
02:03
LittleBits are electronic modules
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with each one specific function.
02:10
They're pre-engineered
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to be light, sound,
02:15
motors and sensors.
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And the best part about it
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is they snap together with magnets.
02:22
So you can't put them the wrong way.
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The bricks are color-coded.
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Green is output, blue is power,
02:30
pink is input and orange is wire.
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So all you need to do is snap a blue to a green
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and very quickly you can start making larger circuits.
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You put a blue to a green,
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you can make light.
02:43
You can put a knob in between
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and now you've made a little dimmer.
02:49
Switch out the knob
02:52
for a pulse module,
02:55
which is here,
02:57
and now you've made a little blinker.
03:00
Add this buzzer
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for some extra punch
03:06
and you've created a noise machine.
03:08
I'm going to stop that.
03:10
So beyond simple play,
03:12
littleBits are actually pretty powerful.
03:15
Instead of having to program, to wire, to solder,
03:17
littleBits allow you to program
03:20
using very simple intuitive gestures.
03:22
So to make this blink faster or slower,
03:24
you would just turn this knob
03:26
and basically make it pulse faster or slower.
03:28
The idea behind littleBits
03:31
is that it's a growing library.
03:33
We want to make every single interaction in the world
03:35
into a ready-to-use brick.
03:37
Lights, sounds, solar panels, motors --
03:39
everything should be accessible.
03:41
We've been giving littleBits to kids and seeing them play with them.
03:43
And it's been an incredible experience.
03:46
The nicest thing is how they start to understand
03:48
the electronics around them from everyday
03:50
that they don't learn at schools.
03:52
For example, how a nightlight works,
03:54
or why an elevator door stays open,
03:56
or how an iPod responds to touch.
03:58
We've also been taking littleBits to design schools.
04:01
So for example, we've had designers
04:03
with no experience with electronics whatsoever
04:06
start to play with littleBits as a material.
04:08
Here you see, with felt and paper water bottles,
04:11
we have Geordie making ...
04:14
(Clanging)
04:16
(Buzzing)
04:18
A few weeks ago we took littleBits to RISD
04:20
and gave them to some designers
04:23
with no experience in engineering whatsoever --
04:25
just cardboard, wood and paper -- and told them "Make something."
04:27
Here's an example of a project they made,
04:30
a motion-activated confetti canon ball.
04:32
(Laughter)
04:35
But wait, this is actually my favorite project.
04:37
It's a lobster made of playdough
04:41
that's afraid of the dark.
04:46
(Laughter)
04:48
To these non-engineers, littleBits became another material,
04:52
electronics became just another material.
04:55
And we want to make this material accessible to everyone.
04:57
So littleBits is open-source.
05:00
You can go on the website, download all the design files, make them yourself.
05:02
We want to encourage a world
05:05
of creators, of inventors, of contributors,
05:07
because this world that we live in,
05:10
this interactive world, is ours.
05:12
So go ahead and start inventing.
05:14
Thank you.
05:16
(Applause)
05:18

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Ayah Bdeir - Engineer and artist
Ayah Bdeir is an engineer and artist, and is the founder of littleBits and karaj, an experimental art, architecture and technology lab in Beirut.

Why you should listen
Ayah Bdeir is the creator of littleBits, an open source system of preassembled, modular circuits that snap together with magnets – making learning about electronics fun, easy and creative. An engineer, inventor and interactive artist, Ayah received her master’s degree from the MIT Media Lab and undergraduate degrees in computer engineering and sociology from the American University of Beirut. Ayah has taught graduate classes at NYU and Parsons and taught numerous workshops to get non-engineers – particularly young girls – interested in science and technology. She is also the founder of karaj, Beirut’s lab for experimental art, architecture and technology. littleBits was named Best of Toyfair, has won the editor’s Choice award from MAKE magazine, and has been acquired by MoMA for its collection.
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