So last week I was asked to write an honest review on the littleBits Base Inventor Kit in exchange for… uh… nothing. Well, I did get the kit to test out, but I’m not sure if that counts for anything. Or maybe it does. Anyway, I’ll be playing around with the kit and recording my thoughts here.
The littleBits Base Inventor kit is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s supposed to serve as an outlet for kids to channel their creativity and make inventions – but at a level that’s basic enough for anyone to be able to pick it up and start messing around with it.
The description says that kids will “gain STEAM skills by learning how technology is built.” How nice, it’s fancy marketing educational. Maybe I’ll learn some valuable new STEAM skills.
First, let’s talk a littleBits about the contents of this kit. It features ten component bits and some other materials and accessories, including a 9V battery, mounting boards, and paper templates for premade inventions. Oh, there’s also an icon that says “smart device required”, but unfortunately it’s not included in the box. Make sure you get yourself a phone or something. It’s for downloading the littleBits app which is necessary for instructions.
All the contents are conveniently listed on the side of the box. I will also show each component here for anyone too lazy to open the kit themselves.
(Left to right: power Bit, slide dimmer Bit, sound trigger Bit, proximity sensor Bit, long LED Bit, buzzer Bit, servo Bit, wire Bit (x2), latch Bit)
Not going to lie, I was pretty surprised when I opened the kit and looked through the materials. At first glance, I’m not sure I would want to pay S$159 for what seems like ten plastic pieces and some paper templates. But that might be overly sceptical… I’ll try not to be too judgemental before I even try it out.
Since I’m not much of an expert with these STEAM oriented maker kits — especially ones meant for eight-year-olds to play with — I decided to consult my best friend Google to see how much these kinds of things should cost. Google knows everything.
A few quick searches later and I am relatively confident that these components are reasonably priced. Well, costly enough that I personally wouldn’t buy them, but I’m not a STEAM kit enthusiast, I’m much older than the target group but not old enough to vote and I’m kind of broke, so make of that what you will. However, with that being said, I do think that they are designed well.
First off, each component is colour-coded based on their function. Every Bit is designated to one of four main categories. Blue is for power, pink for input devices, green for output devices, and orange for connectors.
Just think of them as colourful electronic building blocks — like LEGO pieces. That sounds kid-friendly to me.
Oh, and did I mention that the components are magnetic? They’re magnetic. Which is impressive and convenient — that may justify or at least explain the pricing for these Bits. So now we have colourful LEGO pieces that snap themselves together into a robotic hand. Very kid-friendly.
This is great if you’re buying the kit for your kid, or if you happen to be a kid that happens to have some spare change in your wallet (please click on the link to support my Patreon. I’ll give you candy I promise).
The first thing to do is to install the littleBits app on your phone. There is an instructions manual in the kit, but I wouldn’t count that because the only instruction it has is “Download the app.”
Uh, why…? Anyway. I scrolled through the app, and there are over twenty guides/activities related to the base inventor kit.
That’s like, a lot of stuff. I thought I’d be twiddling my thumbs after the first hour or two, but this is enough material for a few weeks of school lessons if you stretch it out enough. Maybe. I didn’t know I was signing up for a whole course on making littleBits inventions.
On a serious note, it seems like you get quite a bit more mileage out of the Base Inventor kit than I would have thought just by looking at the materials provided in the box itself. That’s good.
It’s inventing time. Or is it? Maybe it’s pretend-to-be-creative-but-actually-just-follow-a-tutorial time. But that doesn’t have the same ring to it. Whatever. We’re going to make stuff now.
Invention #1 - The Stuff Protector
So, the first project, the Stuff Protector. The Stuff Protector is supposed to sound an alarm whenever it detects an object nearby, which is done with a proximity sensor and a buzzer. The template is shaped such that you can hang it on a doorknob and use it like a “Do Not Disturb” sign. That’s cool. I’ve always wanted one of those.
Okay, I just followed the tutorial, and it was… well, very straightforward. Like, maybe a little too straightforward? I’ll leave it at that for now, but let’s just say I don’t know if I’d be able to sit through all of these tutorials.
This one basically walked me through how to assemble the paper template for the project, told me which pieces to snap together, and gave me a pat on the back for my effort (congratulations, you made the Stuff Protector! To protect your stuff!).
Speaking of the template, I did like it quite a bit. It folds perfectly like some fancy origami thing, and all the pieces fit precisely into certain areas of the template. Very satisfying. But it’s also kind of on the flimsy side, being made of paper and all. The components weigh it down more than I expected them too.
Oh. And one more thing. I mentioned that the Stuff Protector protects all your stuff by sounding a buzzer, right? Well, let me tell you that thing is effective. Like, the buzzing is obnoxious enough that I disassembled it the second I heard it and chucked it halfway across the room.
If it bothers you too, stick a piece of tape on the buzzer to dampen the sound. Maybe I’m overreacting a little, but just a word of caution.
Invention #2 - The Navigator
So after that experience, I decided to move onto the next project. Well, not exactly the next one. I skipped a few because I just wanted to do the ones I thought looked cool, and the first one to catch my attention was this one. The Navigator.
It looks like some bat-winged-flying-machine-contraption thing. If that doesn’t intrigue you, you’re not going to have much luck with the rest of the kit. When I clicked on the tutorial, though, I was kind of taken aback. And not because of the cool bat wings.
This project is literally the exact same thing as the Stuff Protector. Same Bit pieces. Same function. Well, slightly different function, technically; now you fly around with your Stuff Protector Navigator, and it’ll buzz when it detects objects you’re about to run into.
The tutorial was structured exactly the same as the last one, so I’m not going to talk about it.
One thing I noticed (this is fairly obvious, but it only crossed my mind when I did this project) is that you can only make one of these inventions at a time. As in the kit only comes with one of each component, so you need to tear apart the previous project to build a new one.
Oh well. Goodbye, Stuff Protector, you will be missed. Or you would be, if this Navigator I’m holding weren’t the exact same thing, albeit slightly better-looking. To be fair, the kit designers were pretty ingenious to remix the same components into different projects. I might not have the same breadth of imagination to see how the same components can be turned into a multitude of different projects. The same way how with just the basic ingredients of eggs, flour, oil, salt and sometimes milk, you can make spaghetti, churros, sourdough, chapati, pancakes, sponge cake and all manners of delicious stuff.
Invention #3 - The Gripper
Moving on, the next project I made was the Gripper. This invention actually used different components, namely the slide dimmer and the servo, a motor that can turn or swing back and forth. They power the mobile arm of the Gripper, allowing you to catch and grab things by adjusting the slide. Pretty neat.
After creating this invention, I think I can conclude that all the videos and guides follow the exact same format of firstly matching the numbered tabs and slots on the template together like this, then clicking the pieces together in this order like so. It’s simple and direct — definitely compelling for a younger audience.
It might get a bit mindless if you just follow the instructions without reflecting on it. So while it provides a very structured beginning, to really take advantage of the kit, you have to go beyond the template projects.
While the littleBits Base Inventor kit is a high quality, well-made product, I’m left feeling slightly unsatisfied after playing around with it for a few hours, probably because it was overhyped, or because I may not be the right age group. It is probably most ideal for children close to 8 years in age, and are beginners to making. It does a great job to support you so that you won’t get frustrated not being able to complete the project. But it also doesn’t do a great job of teaching concepts at a deeper level, so to me, it seems not as educational as it claims to be.
For example, most of the instructions in the tutorials were along the lines of:
Step 1: Grab this piece.
Step 2: Connect it to this other piece.
Step 3: Great job! You have finished assembling the pieces.
I’m exaggerating, of course — I mean, there are short captions explaining what each piece does the first time they are introduced (look below) — but overall it’s really light on the teaching. If you go back to the LEGO analogy, the tutorials are a lot like a LEGO building instructions booklet. You can’t go wrong with the instructions, but it doesn’t challenge me far enough.
I suppose this makes sense since it’s targeted for little kids who are just learning the basics. Like I said earlier, very kid-friendly. It’s easy to play with and has simple, guided instructions that are perfect for, say, a primary school environment or some playtime at home.
But if you are on the older side, or perhaps do not like to be guided in such a structured manner, this might not be the kit for you. But there may be too big of a gap between the structured activities of this Base Kit and the completely unstructured nature of the littleBits Workshop Set where you just get a whole bunch of inputs and outputs bits with no instructions. You might instead prefer to browse through this site full of projects to get inspiration, and then come up with your own projects by buying individual bits.