littleBits, the snap-together magnetic hardware module system for easy DIY hardware mash-ups, has a unique take on how to add new hardware. Previously, modules came from littleBits; the popular Synth Kit collaboration with KORG being a significant exception. littleBits has certainly offered a lot of options, including the recent Cloud Kit for adding Internet connectivity.

But now, it’s opening up hardware development to anyone with an idea. While littleBits calls itself “open source hardware” – founder Ayah Bdeir even co-founding the Open Hardware Summit — that openness has always been restricted when it comes to the magnetic connectors. Those are proprietary, and littleBits has told us previously that they’d be hard for anyone else to manufacture.

That changes with the release of the “Hardware Development Kit” (HDK) and the new Pro Module and connectors. Now you can add littleBits connectors to any project you’ve made. Built an Arduino-powered noisemaker? Now you can connect it electrically to littleBits using magnets. The US$39.95 HDK is basically a bundle of Proto Modules, magnetic snaps, and a perf board for assembling circuits. See video below.

That’s already very cool, but littleBits – fresh with venture funding – is going further. They’re letting users vote on modules they want, then manufacturing them if projects get a minimum of 1000 votes. (It’s up to makers whether to go open source or not, though the current modules are all open circuit designs, and littleBits tells us they’re encouraging the idea.)

There are various launch partners, including Makey Makey and an EKG. For us music folks, that already includes Bleep Labs and their lovely Drum Beat drum machine, which should pair nicely with the KORG Synth Kit (see video at top), and the Gabotronics oscilloscope, from Venezuela-born, Florida-based developer Gabriel Anzziani. (I’d love to see hardware show up in Venezuela, Gabriel, but that’s another topic!)

Here’s a look at those modules I’m especially excited about – see the oscilloscope at top and drum at bottom:




If you join the manufacturing program and your design goes into production, littleBits tells CDM you earn 10% net revenue (gross revenue minus returns, discounts, etc.) on your work, plus co-branding if you have an established brand, as works with KORG. That’s of course a fairly slim margin compared to what you’d optimally have producing hardware yourself, but it also means you don’t carry the obligation of manufacturing, distribution, and sales support, which can drive your take-home profits down to that number or into red ink and requires you to have your own capital.

Impressively, they’re also promising worldwide distribution.

Here’s the new hardware development stuff:


I still find the littleBits idea fascinating. The modules aren’t cheap compared to buying individual parts, but of course, that saves DIYers the trouble of soldering and allows insanely rapid prototyping with different combinations of modules. There are some tradeoffs for designing music solutions too: the connectors can snap apart as easily as together, and some of the (necessary) requirements of designing the hardware can restrict certain ideas. But there’s still a lot of potential. It’s best thought of as its own universe than a direct competitor for standalone DIY hardware or things like Eurorack modules. (I only bring this up as I’ve seen some direct comparisons, and that may miss the point.)

If you’re interested, check out the lab, vote for projects you like, or even consider making your own hardware:

Submission Requirements