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Robots on the dinner table

Lego has released a sophisticated toy, one you wish you'd had way back when

Globe and Mail Update

  • The Good: The sophisticated evolution of the classic children's toy that can keep the young mind's creative faculties focused
  • The Bad: The price; it needs a lot of space to spread out; the wordless diagram instructions aren't always clear; it comes with no batteries (gasp!)
  • The Verdict: If you're all grown up now, it's the toy you wish you'd had when you were a kid. If you're still a kid or a kid at heart, or have a kid that likes to tinker, Mindstorms NXT is the pinnacle of fun

The Lego Mindstorms NXT robotics toy raises some disturbing Darwinian questions.

Putting aside the advances in computers that made much of this new toy possible, would we have been capable of handling such a sophisticated toy when we were kids in the 1950s and 1960s? I doubt it. And if we couldn't handle it then, do we conclude that kids today are simply smarter, or just more mechanically hip? Should adults feel inferior to 10-year-old children, the beginning age for this toy?

When I was a kid, Lego was a favourite toy among almost all my friends. When I got together with my pals, we would just start building things — anything — and see where our constructions would take us. But in retrospect, I was playing with the earliest versions of Lego, and despite there being 102,981,500 different ways of combining six bricks together I can't recall building much beyond castles and forts.

Lego Mindstorms NXT
The Lego Group
$349.99 (Cdn)
Ages: 10 and way up

Since the first Lego pieces rolled out of their Danish factory in 1949, the success of those eight-studded snap-together plastic bricks spawned an extensive developmental process in other lines of Lego toys. Lego embraced the future in 1998, with a line of computerized toys called the Robotics Invention System, which ran on an 8-bit processor. Oddly, today the original plastic-block sets still look good, but the 1998 robotics kit looks embarrassingly primordial.

Lego nearly let the Robotics Invention System die because, I suspect, the release coincided with the excitement over the arrival of computer games. The NXT kit, a major technological upgrade, has just been released, and this time, the timing is a lot better: Computer games, though still immensely popular, have been around long enough that kids are able to be distracted by something like the Mindstorms NXT kit. It's an entirely different experience than games, and will compete with the computer games only on the basis of price.

Mindstorms NXT has reached a dramatic stage of evolution. It arrives with a programmable central processor, called the "NXT brick," which contains a 32-bit central processor that runs on six AA batteries (not included). It also has three interactive servo motors, an ultrasonic "vision" system, a new sound sensor so your robot can respond to sound commands, a touch sensor that allows the robot to feel its way around objects and not fall off the edge of a table, and software you can program from any PC or Macintosh computer using a drag-and-drop interface.

You can order your slavish creations around via a USB cable or the Bluetooth wireless system. Or, once programmed, a robot can act autonomously.

And, of course, there are also a million little pieces that were largely designed for another line of toys called the Lego Technic building system, including nuts, bolts, 20-cm beams, bricks and grommets. Well, in truth there are only 519 of them, but that's certainly enough to give parents conniption fits when the dining-room table gets taken over with what to all appearances will be a never-ending project.

And that's the key to this toolkit.

Mindstorms NXT will lure kids into working with it. It comes with a quick 30-minute project to get started, which should be enough to kick-start the creative juices, and then you can go on your own or follow instructions. From what I can see, there is enough flexibility and variety of pieces to keep a mind amused for a long time.

All kids have varying levels of patience and attention spans, but to my eye the kit has the potential to provide extraordinary challenges and amusements — although I suspect this will appeal more to boys than girls, to whom the construction process is often less important than what the finished product can do.

The kit includes a compact disc that has all sorts of ideas and easily understood software for your delectation, and even a password-protected area for the kind of kids who put "Private Keep Out" signs on their bedroom doors.

There's also an interactive website that has more. Lego has warmly welcomed other people to its Web space, a surprising number of them no longer kids in the calendar definition of the word, to show off their own inventions. There's an elaborate technical-support system, information about joining Lego communities, blogs, a website toolkit, college campus robot competitions and people who act as Lego "ambassadors."

Perhaps the best trick is that Lego has left the source code for programming the firmware of the NXT Brick in the public domain, to allow hackers to have fun, in the same communitarian spirit that has been so successful in driving open-source software. The beauty of this concept is that robot-makers can go on-line and benefit from the work of others, and share what they have done.

And for robot-makers who like to read, there is a series of books based on both the first version of the toy and the latest, many of them published by O'Reilly Media, with hints, tips and projects.

This marriage of the Internet and a toy is the best I've seen yet. Lego has clearly thought everything out.

I particularly like the gallery of projects made by Lego and it creative customers. For its part, Lego suggests a Classic Clock (in 127 easy steps), a Throwbot specifically designed to hurl vegetables "far, far away" from the dinner table, a Chewtoy Bandit designed to steal the dog's toys and a Guard Bot that says "Intruder alert!" when some unapproved person enters the robot-maker's domain.

In turn, customers have made Sting, a variation on the Guard Bot that attacks intruders, a table cleaner that wipes the table surface down with a sponge, a pellet-shooting BBgun Turret, a remote-camera CamBot (it takes video at 30 frames per second), and a Polo Bot that, well, plays polo. Without the horse.

The world of toy-making is a treacherous place, especially for a company that wants to create such a sophisticated and expensive product. If it fails, Lego will have suffered a significant setback.

But I don't think it will fail. What makes Mindstorms NXT special is the same thing that made the original plastic bricks special — they appeal specifically to the creative brain, and have enough flexibility to promise endless hours of devotion. And today's creative brain, which is growing up with the technological revolution, is readier for this kind of toy than the kids of my day.

That's evolution for you.

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