In the world of toys and most-desired stocking stuffers for emerging geeks, there are two pretty distinct categories -- hip reboots of analog classics like today's expanding universe of Lego creations, and digital delights like the coveted LeapPad line of kids' tablets.
This year I took special note of one product that bridges the gap between the old- and new-school style of gifts. littleBits was around for the last holiday season, but this fall expanded its offerings to provide more geek builder power through what it calls "an open-source library of electronics that snap together for prototyping, learning, and fun."
Think Tinker Toys meet Lego Technics for beginners -- it's basically a kit for maker parents to make a future maker. (OK, maybe not make a future maker...that would be inappropriate; more like encourage a future maker.)
littleBits kits for kids ages 8 and up start at $99 for the basic kit (essentially the same as the original that we saw in 2012) and come with an assortment of modules that provide power, take various inputs, and produce assorted outputs. The new premium ($149) and deluxe ($199) kits come with more modules, greatly expanding the number and types of projects that can be created. There's also a "Synth Kit" ($159) available through a partnership with Korg that makes it possible to create mini instruments on the fly and try your hand at some grassroots sound engineering.
The whole setup is color-coded and magnetic to make it easy to learn and use for even the youngest engineers. My 6-year-old daughter took to littleBits right away and was suddenly less interested in My Little Pony. That is quite an achievement for any new product in my household.
Our favorite creation with the loaner premium kit we got for review (which comes with a total of 14 modules) made use of some additional household supplies, as many of the suggested projects in the included maker guide do. We used a plastic cup, some tape and dish soap to create a specialized device to blows huge bubbles anytime my daughter sings into the audio input module. Watch out Hollywood, a new generation of geeky stars who can sing and engineer special effects at the same time is heading your way.
littleBits was featured in a TED talk that went viral a few years back and attracted subsequent attention and investment. In September, it finally launched its big commercial push in advance of this holiday shopping season.
Perhaps the most refreshing part of littleBits for parents and shoppers this season is the fact that it's all open source. No need to buy countless proprietary accessories to keep it fresh; the kits encourage experimentation with just about anything you and your kids can get your hands on, from paper plates to other toys.
A community of littleBits builders has also contributed to a growing library of projects that help ensure that this toy won't wear out its welcome by February. Heck, it may even inspire kids to pick up long-since-forgotten toys again. Magical things could happen when you put a littleBits sound trigger in the same room as a Furby.
Take a tour of the kits in the video below.