Metro Tech

Last Night at New York Tech Meetup: How Can We Get Our Hands on Your LittleBits?

"They're like legos on steroids."

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In the end, all anyone wanted to talk about was the legos. After 10 startups had demonstrated their projects at last night’s New York Tech Meetup, and after a bit of grumbling that the price of admission no longer included a free drink at the after party, meeting-goers and presenters alike turned their attention to the product that had lit up the evening. Literally.

“I call them legos on steroids,” said Adrian Sanders, who’d demonstrated his iPhone storytelling app, Backspac.es earlier in the evening.

They weren’t legos, they were littleBits, electronic modules that snap together with magnets. At the most basic level, the two inch-long rectangles click together to form a circuit, giving dabblers a simple way to light a bulb or honk a horn at the press of a button. But littleBits can do more than the most basic electronics class exercises. More advanced functions make use of sound receptors and revolving parts. The startup’s demonstration included a model that illuminated the image of a horse around its base when the audience clapped—a functionality the audience used to delay the Q&A with intermittent rounds of applause.

“The idea was to make it easier for developers and designers who don’t have the electrical engineering know-how a way to bring their ideas to life,” Jordi Borras, an industrial designer at the company, told us. “It turns out that everyone wants them for kids.”

We think we know what we’ll be buying our nieces and nephews for Christmas.

LittleBits wasn’t the only hardware project to earn raves. Tech manufacturer MPOWERD showed off the Luci, a low-cost collapsible lantern that presenter Jill Van Den Brule intended for countries where electricity isn’t a given, making third-world streets a little bit safer and easing dependence on kerosene lamps. It’s a noble project that could change the lives of the world’s poor. It’s also a cool enough gadget to serve as a low-cost conversation piece until the next hurricane hits New York.

In another Sandy-themed presentation. Mr. Sanders said Backspac.es, an iPhone app that lets users create stories in a vertical scroll of photos and text, had found use with volunteers who wanted to share their experiences helping out in the storm’s hardest hit areas. The startup takes its name from the empty space between photos, akin to the white space between comic book frames that illustrators have been using to create narrative tension for ages. “In comic books, they call that space the gutter,” Mr. Sanders told us during the after party. “But I was like, We’re not calling this ‘Gutter.’”

Betterment, an online banking site, was also hit with meeting-goers. That might have been because founder and CEO Jon Stein played to the crowd: “We’ve done TechCrunch, we’ve done Finovate, all of that garbage,” he said at the start of his demo. “This is the big stage, we’re really proud to be here.”

Or maybe they were impressed with the way Betterment helps users manage their money. With a few clicks of the site’s dashboard, Mr. Stein showed how Betterment can help users hit saving goals, not simply tracking progress towards the amount needed for a down payment or luxury vacation, but automating the task of budgeting and transferring funds to meet those goals.

The company is a registered broker-dealer, Mr. Stein told us after his presentation, and hopes to compete with the Vanguards and Charles Schwaabs of the world. By the time we got home, we wondered why users would want to move money around their investment portfolio with the drag of a mouse—we should choose our advisers for their ability to manage our money, not the quality of their user interface, shouldn’t we? We’ll have to ask Mr. Stein about it another time.

Hakim El Hattab, lead interactive developer at Qwiki, showed off his side project rvl.io, a browser-based presentation platform that led one audience member to offer a Mr. El Hattab a job during the Q&A. “I’m not even sure he realizes how big it could be,” went the after-party chatter. “It could be a Prezi-killer.”

Less exciting, for us anyway, was Pling, a push-to-voice messaging app online that presenters Hashem Bajwa and Robert Spychala said would make it easier for companies to distribute voice messages across groups. Great—that much easier for our bosses to tell us to get our butts into work on the day after Christmas.

Maybe the most intriguing presentation was by the guys from Hacker Union, a “collective of builders working to sustain and grow a hacker culture” that grew out of the NYHacker listserve and was created by the team at HuffPost Labs. Co-founder Brandon Diamond drew laughs when he explained how the collective could help hackers new in town “meet bros” and “mack on ladies.”

What perked out ears up? When an audience member asked why the group had chosen the word “union.” “We’re not ignorant of the implications,” answered Jon Gottfried, developer evangelist at Twilio and webmaster for Hacker Union. “But it’s not our focus at the moment.”

When we asked Mr. Gottfried about the potential for an International Brotherhood of Hackers later in the evening, he said it wasn’t an unreasonable notion. “First we have to build a community.”

Follow Patrick Clark on Twitter or via RSS. pclark@observer.com