From the street, the littleBits pop-up shop looks just like any other storefront in New York's fashionable Soho neighborhood. There's a large window and a glass door with a hanging purple flag reading "littleBits Electronics" in the same color as the company's logo.
That is until you spot the multi-colored spinning wheel, a jumping die, and a few small circuits collectively labeled "a never-ending sequence of invention challenge." The littleBits shop hopes to inspire the inventor in all who enter its doors, inviting passers-by to come in, tinker with littleBits products and either build something to bring home or leave a creation for someone else to play around with.
That's because you have to get your hands on littleBits products to really get a sense of what they are. LittleBits CEO Ayah Bdeir began selling these electronic building blocks in 2011. Consumers can snap together these magnetic modules to create circuits to build everything from musical instruments to cat toys to speakers.
Since then, the littleBits company has expanded to selling its products in stores in 20 states and 22 other countries around the world, in addition to the online store on its official website. The company recently launched its first retail location at the end of July. Though some may see opening up a brick-and-mortar store at a time when retail is increasingly moving online as a bit of a backwards move, Scott Roslyn, the retail director of littleBits, said he thinks the shop can actually revolutionize the retail experience.
“It’s one thing to have an experience online, but what we wanted to do was really create an interactive experience where someone could walk into this space, feel the product, the brand, the power of making and creating and inventing," Roslyn said in an interview with Tech Times at the littleBits store. "I believe retail today is shifting. I think that retail is about experience, and it's about allowing content for people to consume."
With the help of the Montreal-based interactive design firm Daily tous les jours, the littleBits store takes a three-part approach to giving customers an experiential visit. Visitors enter in the "Get Inspired" section filled with small stations to demo the products to get a better sense of how they work and what sorts of creations they can make out of them. Also in this area is the musical twister wall made using littleBits products. It's a colorful homage to the giant piano at FAO Schwarz immortalized in the 1988 movie Big, where visitors are the wire to complete a circuit, serving as "a physical warm-up to this space," according to Roslyn.
Customers then move into the "Create Inventions" area at the back of the store, which is something of a workshop to play around and experiment with the various littleBits products. In late August, there were four tables set up with all of the littleBits modules and craft materials needed to complete each project. With the help of recipe cards, visitors receive instructions on how to create a keytar, roller bot, light sign and drawing machine. In this area, it's not uncommon to hear a loud, ghost-like, synthy wail of a newly-built electronic instrument or a robotic marker taking on a life of its own as it crawls across a table drawing on page after page.
Visitors can also use littleBits to invent something all on their own at a table that looks like it belongs at a garage sale, one that's filled with a hodgepodge of everyday objects, such as purple Chuck Taylor All Stars, a party hat and a potted plant. All the while, littleBits store employees are available to help anyone in need, donning white jumpsuits to keep up the industrial laboratory vibe of the shop.
Amit Kulkarni sat at the keytar station with his son, daughter and wife while at the littleBits store during this leg of their trip visiting New York from India. He and his family had been interested in trying out littleBits ever since watching Bdeir's TED2012 Talk.
“Since then, I have been following the growth, and we were visiting New York and we read very recently that they opened up a shop. So, that was a perfect opportunity to get the kids to be here and have some fun," Kulkarni said. "We wanted to buy anyway, so this was a good opportunity to try before we buy.”
When customers are done with their inventions, they can either choose to purchase the parts they used or any other littleBits products or leave their creation for someone else to tinker with. Either way, the final step is always for the inventor to take a photo with his or her creation at the Get Snapped Photo Booth in the "Share Creations" part of the store. Visitors can then email their photos or share them on their social accounts, and they're also displayed on TV screens in the center of the store as something of "a wall of fame," according to Roslyn.
This celebration of STEM learning is of course at the heart of littleBits, whose candy-colored modules and prepackaged kits make it seem mainly targeted toward children, although the company says anyone from ages "eight to infinity" can enjoy its products. Events such as the recent arrest of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed for bringing a homemade clock into his high school mistaken by educators to be a bomb serve as a reminder that companies like littleBits still have a long way to go in changing attitudes about the importance of STEM education in the United States.
The littleBits store will remain open until this year's holiday season, at which point the team will evaluate its success and discuss any future retail plans, Roslyn said. Until then, the store will continue to evolve, showcasing new projects, selling new products and hosting workshops.
"This is our first retail store, and what we wanted to do was, just the same way we allow people to test a prototype and experiment with the product, this is an experiment for us," Roslyn said. "We're learning every day, every week what works with this design, what works with the concept, and we're continuing to iterate and test new things."