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Invent your own smart home with new LittleBits kit

The New York startup unveils its new Smart Home Kit for $249, offering a way for do-it-yourselfers to create doorbells, pet fish feeders or open-refrigerator alarms.

The LittleBits Smart Home Kit includes 14 modules and a new AC switch. Sarah Tew/CNET

Your old appliances can now learn new tricks.

Looking to gain a foothold in the fast-expanding smart-home market -- and potentially save a bunch of old and unloved coffeemakers and refrigerators from the junkyard -- New York startup LittleBits on Tuesday came out with its new Smart Home Kit. The $249 set comes with 14 magnetically connecting modules (called Bits) that can be made into different combinations in minutes to create do-it-yourself "smart" appliances out of "dumb" ones.

The Smart Home Kit is the latest creation from 3-year-old LittleBits, which tries to bring DIY electronics to the masses through its easily assembled modules, which can be used to create instruments, Internet-connected objects and now a tablet-operated lamp or pet fish feeder.

"The kit is meant to make this idea of the smart home accessible to anyone," Ayah Bdeir, founder and CEO of LittleBits, said in an interview at the company's Chelsea headquarters. "You can create your own home, you can customize your home, you can retrofit your stuff and you can invent something completely new that never existed before."

LittleBits will be joining many other much larger companies that are working on defining what the home of the future will look like. The gains for the successful companies in this burgeoning space could be huge, with market researcher Berg Insight forecasting the North American market for smart-home systems will be worth $9.4 billion in 2018, up from just $1.6 billion in 2012. The number of connected North American homes should hit more than 31 million in three years, Berg said.

The heavyweights making a play for the smart-home market include Google, which this year bought smart-thermostat company Nest for $3.2 billion, and Samsung, which agreed to buy smart-home firm SmartThings in August. General Electric has teamed up with New York startup Quirky to create a handful of new smart-home devices, which were revealed last week.

While some of the larger companies are offering set pieces of hardware that are ready to use out of the box but can't be modified much, LittleBits is hoping to stand out by offering a way customize your smart home and come up with your own tools using its kit.

"There's dozens of projects that you can make that can affect every room in your house," said Krystal Persaud, a product design lead at LittleBits who helped develop the Smart Home Kit.

All around the company's offices were examples of what someone could create with the new kit. Bdeir showed off a doorbell that can send a text to the homeowner that someone's there and plays music for guests while they wait. Elsewhere, Persaud presented an open-refrigerator alarm that will set off a buzzer if the door is accidentally left open for too long.

The new kit includes a handful of new kinds of Bits, including a tiny MP3 player (which was used to play music from doorbell), a temperature sensor (which powered the open-fridge alarm), an IR transmitter and a number counter (which could be used to count the number of times your dog barks). The kit includes the company's cloudBit, which allows a user to connect objects to their smartphones or tablets. There's also a new AC switch that can be used to control a wall outlet using LittleBits circuits to turn on and off lights or fans.

LittleBits also said Tuesday that it expanded its partnership with RadioShack, with its kits now sold in 2,000 retail stores in the US. The Smart Home Kit is available online at LittleBits website starting Tuesday and will be coming to RadioShack locations in December.