New kid on the block

Lego’s newest creation is a far cry from the plastic building bricks of yesteryear. Mindstorms NXT is a do-it-yourself software robotics kit that may become this year’s must-have toy. Jon Excell reports.

As evocative brand names go it’s hard to beat. Utter the word ‘Lego’ to pretty much anyone and a colourful, plastic brick will pop into their mind. But while the diminutive Danish building block is a striking and no-doubt commercially useful icon, the next Lego product to hit the shelves is a world away from the castles, boats, cars and Viking long ships of many readers’ childhoods. Lego’s Mindstorms NXT, due to be launched in the UK early next month, is a do-it-yourself robotics kit that enables users to build and program a variety of walking, talking, intelligent robots. While many of the elements that make up the kit are immediately recognisable to Lego stalwarts, the intelligent heart of the system, the NXT brick, is a far cry from Lego sets of yesteryear. It looks more like an ipod than a piece of Lego. Armed with a 32-bit processor, this unit controls and monitors an array of sensors and actuators that enable users’ creations to strut – and sometimes roll – their stuff. Programs varying from highly complex ‘pick-and-place’ procedures to simpler ‘travel in a straight line until you hit something’ commands are developed using intuitive drag-and-drop software. These instructions can then be uploaded to the NXT brick through a USB connection or via Bluetooth. Lego has gone through a traumatic time over the past few years so a lot is riding on the success of Mindstorms NXT. The company’s ‘Mr Mindstorms’, Soren Lund, explained why he believes the new product will be a hit. Talking to The Engineer just weeks before the UK launch, Lund said technology has moved on since the first incarnation of Mindstorms. ‘In 1998 we used what was hot and modern and new at the time and we kept that platform until today. But it’s now an eight-year-old platform and there are many more possibilities to what you can do today.’ Working with enthusiastic online fans – the Mindstorms user panel – Soren’s team began equipping Mindstorms NXT with a tantalising pallete of technologies. One of the first areas to receive a reworking was the array of sensors and actuators that plug into the brick to create the eyes and ears of the robot. The kit features improved versions of the light and touch sensors that appeared on earlier models, a new ultrasonic sensor and a sound sensor that can measure sound pressure levels up to 90dB. All-seeing robot The ultrasonic sensor is particularly interesting. Acting as the robot’s eyes, it uses echolocation to bounce sound waves off objects and gather data about its surroundings. It can measure distances from 0 to 255cm with a precision of +/- 3cm and it enables the robot to see and detect objects, avoid obstacles, sense and measure distance and detect movement. The brick is also a considerable improvement on its forbears, said Lund. ‘We’re going from an 8 to a 32- bit processor – that alone is a revolution.’ He added that the ability to connect the brick through USB and Bluetooth is a massive advance on a pre-existing infra-red connection that was unpopular with some customers. The wireless connectivity is also exciting, he said. ‘You can have true wireless communication between the robot and computer or true wireless communication between several robots.’ Lego will soon launch a free, downloadable application that will enable users to link their robots and their mobile phones. Lund explained that as well as enabling users to control their robots via their handset, the application could also enable the robot to react to certain stimuli by triggering the phone’s camera to take a picture. Throughout the development of the product Lund’s team has pursued the twin aims of making the technology easier to use for children, while offering increased levels of sophistication for the adult user. Walking in straight lines A good example of this approach is the work that has been done on the motors. Previous versions came with standard, geared motors that made it difficult to program robots to travel in a perfectly straight line. On the new kit, interactive servo motors give feedback to the brick, which is able to ensure that the motors propel the robot in a straight line. This has removed a big frustration for first-time users. ‘It is very easy for children as young as 10 to build and program a simple robot that will travel in a straight line within half an hour,’ said Lund. While young people will benefit from the ease of use, he expects older users to find increasingly innovative ways of using the motors. At a recent convention, he reports seeing one such customer using the motors as joysticks to control another robot via the Bluetooth connection. One of the biggest changes to the new system is the drag-and-drop graphical programming interface powered by Labview, National Instruments’ ubiquitous measurement and control software. According to Lund, it is a big improvement. ‘It takes very few icons to do quite advanced stuff – we’re taking sophisticated programming paradigms and methods and making it so intuitively easy that a kid can do it.’ While some may regard Labview’s role in a toy as something of a departure for a product more readily associated with the factory floor, Ray Almgren, NI’s vice-president of Product Marketing and Academic Relations, said the Lego application is not so different to the industrial uses that the product is famed for.

However, the user base is slightly different. While some customisation has taken place to make the user environment easier for young people to use, Almgren said the high level of young people’s computer literacy meant it was not necessary to dumb the system down. He added that NI is looking at what features could be carried back into its flagship product.

A child as young as 10 can build and program a simple robot that will travel in a straight line within half an hour, says Lego’s Soren Lund

The relationship between Lego and NI dates back to 1998 when NI helped developed Robolab, the programming software for Lego’s Mindstorms for schools product. Labview was seen as ideal for this product because it ran on both PCs and Apple Macs. While the Robolab software was essentially a version of Labview, the retail version of Mindstorms continued to run on Lego’s proprietary programming system, which only worked on PCs. Almgren said in 2004, after the success of Robolab, which has been translated into 17 languages, it was decided to put Labview at the heart of the next generation of Mindstorms. A different beast Mindstorms NXT is not cheap. But while its UK price tag of 179 will put it in the same league as games consoles and other robotics toys, Lund does not view these as competitors. The software’s highly-customisable nature marks it out as very different beast, he said. ‘There are a lot of robotics toys out there and they’re all good, but pretty much all them are “what you see is what you get”. ‘What we deliver is not a product, it’s a toolset. We give you a lot of detailed instructions about how you can create stuff but it is about that whole creative process. You’re challenging yourself trying to figure out how do I build that? How do I program that? How do I make it work? This is building and programming your own robot. It’s sophisticated stuff, it’s just made easy.’ Lego’s idea of easy is very different from the instant fix offered by the games consoles manufacturers and it is gratifying that the Lego set of the 21st century requires just as much patience as its ancestors. The technical complexity of the kit, and the currrent slow progress of The Engineer’s review copy, suggests that if the toy is accurately pitched at today’s children, reports of falling educational standards might be exaggerated. The kit went on sale in the US this month and lands on UK shelves next week, with the late summer launch chosen to allow a buzz in schools and on the web to generate momentum in the run-up to Christmas. According to Lund, if the healthy pre-order figures on Lego’s website are anything to go by, Mindstorms NXT could just be this year’s must-have toy.