For almost seven years now, littleBits has been cleverly getting kids to learn about tech with programmable electronic building blocks that make anyone an instant hardware hacker. Its latest kit also promises to turn kids into superheroes like Iron Man, but its real appeal is instead making you feel like Tony Stark as you build, program, and customise an interactive gauntlet.
As a kid, nothing tanked my interest in a toy quicker than realising it was supposed to be educational. I demanded a distinct separation between school and play; mostly because teaching toys in the ‘80s were dull and boring. What makes littleBits toys different isn’t necessarily that they’re packed with electronics to appeal to a gadget-consumed generation—Radio Shack sold lots of DIY electronic kids when I was younger. It’s that building your own gadget, with capabilities similar to the smartphone in your pocket, is so satisfyingly easy. The crystal radio I tried to build as a kid is nowhere near as cool as this.
If you’re not familiar with littleBits, they’re essentially a series of simple electronic building blocks that attach to each other using magnets that ensure all the electrical contacts are always perfectly connected. Each component introduces a specific function like power, detecting motion, sensing light, playing sounds, or even talking to an app over Bluetooth.
The components you choose to connect, and the order they’re assembled, define how your creation functions. There’s no soldering needed, no wires to be stripped, and no risk of accidentally shorting everything out if you make a mistake. And if your circuit isn’t working as you’d hoped, re-assembling the various electronic bits to try again is as easy as rebuilding a Lego set.
Last year’s littleBits Droid Inventor Kit introduced an empty robot shell kids could bring to life using these modular electronic bits, and the company’s new Avengers Hero Inventor Kit takes a similar approach, but with a wearable gauntlet that imbues the wearer with imaginary superpowers.
The gauntlet straps to your arm and hand using velcro straps, while the modular electronic pieces are held in place inside a pair of grooves with sliding locking mechanisms. It keeps all the parts from flying off when playtime gets especially active, but the shell does limit how many littleBits components can be daisy-chained (you can’t use all of the kit’s included bits at once), which in turn limits how elaborate its capabilities can get.
In addition to a light sensor, motion sensor, Bluetooth connectivity, on/off buttons, and a sound effects module, the Avengers Hero Inventor Kit introduces a round LED matrix that allows each pixel to be colour-customised, animated, and triggered through different actions and environments.
The customizability is actually a big part of this kit. littleBits was founded by Ayah Bdeir as an accessible way to get both boys and girls interested in technology. The company’s kits have always been gender neutral, but kids are encouraged to further customise the gauntlet to create their own superhero persona—instead of just emulating a hero they’ve seen in a movie. The kit includes blank and coloured decals that can be used to decorate the gauntlet’s shell, as well as suggestions on how to use other things around the house to create a truly unique superhero accessory. It strikes a nice balance between being yet another electronic toy while inspiring imaginative play.
Two years ago littleBits added its first Bluetooth module that not only introduced smartphone connectivity but also apps that could control and customise the various electronic bits through programming. And without a doubt, the Avengers Hero Inventor Kit app is the best part of this gauntlet-building experience.
Given the Avengers branding, the app is packed with various Marvel characters who guide kids through step-by-step tutorials on how to use the various bits, and littleBits has ensured there’s just as many female superheroes represented as males—including Black Widow, the Wasp, Shuri, and even Ironheart. Each character introduces the functionality of a different module through animated building guides that are very easy to follow.
For instance, Black Widow, who relies on stealth, teaches kids about how the light sensing bit works, and how it can be incorporated into the gauntlet to trigger lights or sounds depending on what it detects. The use of Marvel characters is first and foremost a marketing tool here, but kids undoubtedly love superheroes, and I’ll give littleBits credit for finding a way to use each hero’s powers or skills as a sneaky way to accessibly introduce a new technology to them.
The app isn’t just an interactive instruction manual, however. It very much functions as an additional electronic component to the kit. Kids can use it to design their own custom imagery for the glowing LED matrix accessory, and even go so far as to program scrolling messages or custom animations that can be triggered by motion, light, or the simple push of a button.
Re-arranging how the littleBits electronic modules are assembled can change the gauntlet’s functionality, but the Avengers Hero Inventor Kit app also includes a graphical programming language that almost infinitely expands the kit’s customizability. It provides access to the data coming from the light sensor, or the motion sensor so that it can be used to trigger other bits, like playing a sound effect when you wave your arm or turning on the LEDs when a kid walks into a dark room. By modern programming standards it might be simplistic, but for a kid’s toy, it’s remarkably robust.
If your kid walks out of every Marvel movie with their imagination running wild about growing up to be an Avenger one day, this is one electronic toy you don’t necessarily have to feel guilty about them playing with for hours on end.
It will not only help inspire their imaginations, it will also potentially help put them on the path to becoming a genius billionaire inventor one day. (Maybe that’s just my imagination at work.) There are lots of toymakers that claim to embrace STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) concepts, but littleBits still does it better than most.