For you trivia lovers, the LEGO Company was founded in Denmark by a carpenter in 1932. At that time, Denmark was in a depression, but this carpenter believed parents would forgo other expenses to provide toys for their children. Today the current president of the company is the grandson of the founder, and over 400 million children have played with LEGO toys over the years. The word LEGO comes from the Danish words Leg godt which means play well. In Latin it means “I put together.” That Danish carpenter would be amazed to see children building the current LEGO creations that can move and react on their own.
The latest release of LEGO MINDSTORMS encourages the design of some very high tech creations. Combining the LEGO building bricks with a computer, the Robotics Invention System 1.5 is currently the most advanced set in the LEGO Company’s line of technology-based products. This toy is targeted at users ages twelve and above, and that includes any moms, dads, and grandparents that want to join in. With LEGO MINDSTORMS, you can design, build, and program a robot to follow you around a room, watch for intruders, and respond to motion, light, and color. LEGO creations will move, act, and respond. The beauty of this product is that it places the power of robotics at a youngster’s command enabling them to build and program their own robots.
The MINDSTORM kit includes over 700 LEGO pieces, one light sensor, two motors, an infrared transmitter, gears, and programming software. The system runs on the RCX, an 8-bit microprocessor with 16 K of ROM, 512 bytes of SRAM, and 32K of external SRAM for user code and other applications.
Building MINDSTORM robots is not a speedy undertaking. First, the software needs to be installed on the computer. The tutorial on the CD-ROM that comes as part of the package will familiarize the user with the LEGO MINDSTORM Robotics Invention System (RIPS). With this knowledge under his or her belt, the youngster is ready for some hands-on robot building. Creations can take the form of anything the imagination can design: a bulldozer, car, crane, a robot, or Star Wars inspired creature, to name just a few.
The next step involves RCX, the brain of LEGO MINDSTORM inventions. RCX is an autonomous LEGO microcomputer that can be programmed using a PC. It uses sensors to input data about its environment. It then processes the data and can signal output motors to turn on and off. Using the RCX code, youngsters create a program for their invention. Then they download their program from their PC to the RCX using a special infrared transmitter. Their newly created robot can now interact with the environment, fully autonomous from the computer.
Not surprising, the construction of the robot is labor intensive; it takes a fair amount of time to find and interlock the LEGO building bricks. Complete step-by-step instructions are given for three different robots in the Constructopedia building guide. Starting with one of these robots gives a nice introduction, and this picture-based instruction guide is very helpful. The LEGO tips and tricks area of the LEGO Web site was also very helpful with its clues on how to better visualize the inventions as well as other useful hints, tips, and tricks.
Unfortunately, the robot can only perform actions that are preprogrammed. There is no ability for spontaneity like a remote controlled creation. I hope that LEGO MINDSTORM will add this ability to its kits in the future.
Organization of Pieces
In building the Acroflip, the robot that I constructed, instructions called for four distinct, very small pieces needed for the wheels. It was difficult to find these small pieces among all 700 pieces. This was, to me, the most annoying thing about MINDSTORM. Finding the needed parts is time-consuming and frustrating. I would like to see some sort of packaging that would separate the parts for easy access. Sure, a lot of kids will dump all the LEGO parts in a pile, but for the more organized types, a better-designed storage container would be a great feature.
This is a great high tech toy for youngsters who have the time and energy to devote to it and parents and/or grandparents who can afford the $199 price tag. This product will surely provide unlimited play potential and will exercise the child’s imagination and creativity. It will also serve as a great introduction into the world of computer programming. This LEGO toy is certainly one that can be enjoyed by several generations. If you belong to an older generation, just be sure that you have plenty of time, patience, and finger/hand dexterity.