RadioShack (RSH) said this spring that it would attempt to shore up its crumbling retail empire by providing shelf space to crafty inventors whose gadgets might lure people into the stores. The first items will show up in stores next month, but they aren’t exactly gadgets; rather, they’re kits designed to help people make their own Internet connected doorbells and toy houses with remote controlled lights.
The idea comes from New York startup LittleBits, which makes a series of brightly colored components that can be snapped together to create Rube Goldberg machines for the digital era. The company has already been selling sets that allow users to connect, say, a small sound detector to a LED light, allowing you to illuminate a small space every time you turn on the radio. Starting Wednesday, LittleBits is selling a kit that connects these things to the Internet. It will be available in a small number of RadioShack stores in August and in 2,000 of them by the fall.
LittleBits thinks this will allow anyone to turn the electronics in their homes into Internet-connected gadgets, rather than waiting for Google (GOOG), Apple (AAPL), or a startup to build the whole thing for them. Such companies as Bug Labs and Electric Imp have also created ways for hobbyists and manufacturers to create Internet-connected devices.
The LittleBits pitch is simplicity. It says its electronics strive to be as easy to play with as Legos. A starter kit costs $99 and is designed to be useful in the hands of complete novices but also offers more advanced tools, such as APIs, for those who want to write code for the gadgets. LittleBits also has an agreement with IFTTT, an online service that allows people to automate various aspects of their Web experiences. This is how a balloon can be inflated every time someone mentions you on Twitter (TWTR).
The most basic actions actually can be set up in a few minutes, although anything requiring Internet connectivity requires a set-up process that resembles setting up a router for a Wi-Fi, which is fine so long as it works perfectly but completely maddening once the slightest thing goes wrong.
You can’t do a whole lot with the starter kit, but the company sells bigger libraries of gizmos that include hundreds of modules and cost thousands of dollars. The company sees these larger arrays of equipment as ways for small companies or inventors to prototype their own Internet-connected products. Maybe some of those would end up on RadioShack’s shelves as well.