B-Squares' Brilliant Plot to Take Over Electronics With Lego-Like Gadgets

© Jaymi Heimbuch

I admit, I was really excited when I saw B-Squares for the first time. I wrote about them last May when the creators were fundraising on Kickstarter -- and the project earned far and away more funds than originally asked. Apparently I wasn't the only one excited about these modular building blocks for gadgets.

And that's pretty much what B-Squares are. They're building blocks -- building blocks for both electronic devices and for the consumer electronics industry as a whole. What B-Squares has in store for consumers is a whole lot more than just a fun toy or two that can be modified. What is ultimately in store is a complete shift in how we view electronics and what they should be capable of doing, or becoming, based on our own personal needs and creativity.

How B-Squares Work

If you're unfamiliar with B-Squares, here's a rundown. They're square blocks that each have a different function -- one may be a solar panel, another a battery, another an LED light and another an Arduino. Each is built as identical on the outside as possible, with the same size and shape, the same magnetic corners so they can stick to each other, the same micro-suction material on the edges so they can stick to various surfaces, and the same panels along the edges that can be swapped out as needed.

Each square is a building block for a device -- whatever device you might want to come up with. So for instance, you might want to make a simple LED light glow. What do you need? You need an LED square and a battery square. And you might want to quickly charge that battery square so you add on a solar square:

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Say you want to change the LED light from blue to white. Just rotate the square, and the white lights are illuminated:

© Jaymi Heimbuch

You can also add on an Arduino square and program the lights to glow in a certain pattern, or who knows what else -- it's up to your imagination. Essentially, you build what you want just by clicking the squares together and, perhaps, doing a little programming. As B-Squares gets rolling, more squares with different functions will roll out, and more applications for combinations of squares will be possible.

This is the beginning of modular electronics in the market place.

Aimed at Non-Geek Consumers, Not Just Makers

Jordan McRae and Shawn Frayne of B-Squares sat down with me at a parkside cafe on Monday to talk about their plans for the future of B-Squares. What they're looking to do is not just provide cool toys for geeks, but provide inspiration for modular electronics for consumers.

The squares also made as simply as possible so that they can reach consumers -- not just makers. I asked for their definition of the difference, and the distinction seems logical:

Hackers are the super geeks, the folks who have no problem programming Arduino squares, soldering their own circuit boards and so on. They're the ones who are comfortable making their own electronics. Makers are the folks who like to dabble in their own projects, but might want parts provided to them. They're the folks who post projects on Instructables and shop at the Maker Shed -- they want to do their own projects but are comfortable only to a certain level. Consumers are the ones who want electronics made for them. Start talking circuit boards and resistors and their eyes get wide and they start sweating profusely.

It's for consumers that B-Squares are made. Well, and makers too.

B-Squares are simple enough for anyone to feel they can pop a few together in different orders and create something cool. Makers can come up with designs or programs to download to the Arduino squares that consumers can buy and build themselves as easily as following a pattern in a Lego set.

The Building Blocks of a Modular Gadget World

B-Squares are intended to make the average Joe comfortable with the guts of gadgets and inspired to create their own devices based on what functions they need them to provide. Eventually such modularity will hopefully come to be expected so that as new technology and functionality for devices and appliances roll out, items like B-Squares can provide a plug-n-play solution to providing that new functionality for existing products.

An example is a washing machine. Just last week at CES I wrote about Samsung's internet-connected washing machine. Through the company's home energy management system (HEMS), you'd be able to toss laundry in your washing machine and head off to work. You could get an alert on a device like a smart phone or tablet for when energy prices are low, then from that device select your load settings and start the wash. You could also watch the progress of the load from your device and know when the load is done -- even receive a text message letting you know the load is finished. This technology exists, and we're just waiting on manufacturers to start rolling it out. Buy the new machine and sign up for the HEMS and you're good to go.

But B-Squares could provide the same technology to someone who doesn't want to buy that washer. For instance, you could have a motion-sensor square attached to a Bluetooth square. Place those to your existing washing machine. When the motion sensor square notices that the washing machine is no longer moving, the Bluetooth square could send a notification to your smart phone. Or you could have an Arduino square attached to the set-up and plugged into the machine via USB (yes, there are washing machines with USB ports so you can download specially designed wash cycles to your machine), and you could tell the washing machine what to do from your phone.

Of course this all depends on the development of such B-Square modules, but that's just a matter of time. The bigger point is that they are making old electronics capable of taking part in new technology.

Next Steps for B-Squares

McRae and Frayne see B-Squares as following a similar trajectory as Cubify is following in 3D printing. It is bringing something that was once the tool for pros into the home, making mass customization a reality. But they're hoping B-Squares acts more as the second pillar of mass customization. Where Cubify helps consumers design and create something that cannot be modified and will eventually be thrown away, B-Squares is something consumers can design and create, then tear apart and rebuild as needs change. It is mass customization with reuse built in.

B-Squares has already identified that consumers will buy squares and keep moving forward with their interest in modifying and rebuilding. That has been proven out by those who have already purchased squares and have given feedback. So the next step is identifying more applications, and which squares are key to the functionality of designs such as Bluetooth squares, motion sensor squares, and so on. In the next one to three years, we can expect to see B-Squares building these "key function" squares as well as launching an apps store where makers can upload creative designs or programs for the squares and consumers can download them.

Eventually, 10 or 20 years down the road, B-Squares is hoping that these modular components will allow us to add new functionality to existing devices from cell phones to dishwashers as the functions are developed, so we don't have to wait years after the technology is created for there to be a market for manufacturers to sell it.

But B-Squares does not expect to take over as the only gadget in the consumer electronics industry. As Frayne pointed out, the mobile phone is already swallowing things like wallets and keys -- soon we can leave the house with nothing but our mobile phone and yet have everything we need held within it. B-Squares is not aiming to swallow devices. Instead, it hopes to add to their usefulness, and allow consumers to infinitely customize their electronics.

What Do YOU Want From B-Squares?

So that leaves B-Squares with a big question for you, dear reader. If you were going to buy B-Squares, what would you want to make them do? What applications do you have for them in your life?

Do you want a motion-sensor LED light for the hallway? What about something that beeps every time a window in the house is opened? Or a set-up that will tweet you when the laundry is done? Would you like to make a solar-powered robot that answers math questions? There is no limit to the creativity, so leave your wants in the comments. B-Squares is reading them...

Tags: Gadgets

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