SXSW: Software, Apps Still Rule But A Hardware Resurgence Is On : All Tech Considered Technology talk is often focused on software and programs that run inside our devices. But a "maker movement" is driving interest toward making the physical devices themselves.

SXSW: Software, Apps Still Rule But A Hardware Resurgence Is On

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


I'm Robert Siegel. And it's time for a South by Southwest edition of All Tech Considered.


SIEGEL: The Austin, Texas, festival includes a huge technology conference called Interactive. Every year, tech industry leaders float big ideas about technology's intersection with culture. We're going to hear about some of this year's themes: the future of play, and the future of storytelling.

BLOCK: The conference also had a very serious side today. NSA leaker and fugitive Edward Snowden addressed an audience of thousands, in a live video appearance from Russia. He defended his release of thousands of documents that reveal sweeping government surveillance programs.

EDWARD SNOWDEN: When it comes to would I do this again, the answer is absolutely yes. I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, and I saw that the Constitution was violated on a massive scale.

BLOCK: That's Edward Snowden, answering questions at South by Southwest today. And we have a full report on that appearance elsewhere in the program.

SIEGEL: And now back to the subject of play at South by Southwest. We're joined by NPR's Elise Hu, who's at the Austin Convention Center. Hi, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hi there, Robert.

SIEGEL: And I should say that high-tech and play have been a natural combination, at least ever since our desktops came with Solitaire software loaded in them. What's new and different at South by Southwest in the world of games and toys?

HU: Well, what's interesting is we're kind of going back in time, in a way, to electricity hits that maybe even our grandparents played with. And that's this notion of hardware, actually making machines, and previously that was very complicated. But there's one new product that I'm pretty excited about called littleBits. And if the system of little modular circuits that are color-coded and they snap together with magnets. The magnets are always right, so you would put one color against another color in order for them to snap together. If they resist each other then you know that you're kind of going the wrong direction.

So it's basically like Legos, if only each Lego could be put together to create your own tiny Ferris Wheel or fan or even a robot. So it makes building electronics, which previously had a steep learning curve, a lot simpler.

I was with the founder, Ayah Bdeir this weekend to check it out.

So just to show off littleBits, Ayah is going to make us a really quick speaker with maybe - within seconds, 'cause they promised circuits within seconds. So let's start a speaker from scratch.


HU: And then you can adjust the volume?


AYAH BDEIR: So I can adjust the volume. In this case, I'm adjusting the pitch. I'm deciding whether I want to have the waveform to saw tooth or square wave.

HU: And all from attaching how many littleBits together?

BDEIR: So now, we have four bits. We have a power bit, a sequencer, an oscillator and a speaker.

HU: And after I stopped taping, she added a little light just for kicks. But you can tell there, Robert, just how quickly we made something that lights up or made a sound. And that makes this daunting thought of making your own electronics a lot more accessible and less daunting.

SIEGEL: Well, apart from helping kids fill your home with those wonderful sounds they'll be able to make...


SIEGEL: ...what is the ostensible educational purpose of this kind of toy?

HU: The idea behind this and making hardware a lot simpler for young people and grown-ups alike to do this, is to show them that they can change their environment. They can light something up or they can make a noise simply. And by doing that, they not only learn about the connection but also get motivated to learn more and make more things. So this is just kind of a stepping stone, if you will.

SIEGEL: It sounds noteworthy here that these are high-tech toys that don't engage a kid with an iPad or a videogame. We're not talking about lots of screen time being invested here.

HU: Yeah, and you hit on a really important trend here, Robert, because it's happening here at South by Southwest but also in the larger tech industry, there's a big return to hardware. You know, we talk a lot about apps that you can see on iPads or software that runs on computers. And that's very different than hardware, the physical machines that you can build.

I bring this up because there's a real maker movement going on in technology that's combining the best elements of coding software with physical objects, like these littleBits. And so, this product is just one part of it. It's intuitive enough for kids to use it but a lot of adults are also using it to prototype their ideas. Or in our case, try out making music.


SIEGEL: Or if not music, at least that sound. That's NPR's Elise Hu in Austin, Texas. Thank you, Elise.

HU: You're welcome.

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