The toy of the future--LEGO's buildable, programmable robot set--is here.
By Webster Mudge
September 1, 1998 -- Forget Teddy Ruxpin. Forget Barney. LEGO MindStorms ($200 street), available today, is the next step in toy technology. LEGO has combined its traditional building blocks with the MindStorms Robot Invention System (RIS) motors and sensors. You can create programmable robots that navigate obstacles, follow trails, or detect changes in light or temperature. No programming experience is necessary; LEGO's intuitive software helps you along the way.
The brain of this new system is the RCX, an 8-bit microprocessor with 16K of ROM, 512 bytes of SRAM for firmware, and 32K of external SRAM for user code and other applications. Additionally, the RIS comes with more than 700 LEGO pieces, one light sensor, two motors, and an infrared (IR) transmitter. MindStorm developers program the RCX using a simple scripting language and upload the program to the RCX via the IR transmitter.
We found getting up and running with the RIS to be quite easy. When we used the guided setup program, we did have some problems with our COM ports for the IR transmitter. Fortunately, we were able to move the IR transmitter to another port, but the solution was not obvious; this problem could be a source of trouble for some users. We wished the setup program had a little more detail on how to handle COM port problems. Fortunately, the RIS has a good interactive troubleshooting guide for the RCX and transmitter.
LEGO MindStorms includes narrated training sessions, which are extensive and complete. The concepts of logic and design are explained in clear language, and we had many opportunities to build and test robots. The training sessions are targeted for the preteen, but the pace was fast enough for us to enjoy them. In addition to the training sessions, the RIS comes with "Challenge" sessions, with more sessions available for purchase.
Challenges, in essence, are lessons in robotics. Each set of lessons centers on a particular action or set of actions that a robot can perform. In each segment, you are given a task to accomplish--for example, building a pathfinder robot that will find the black line on a test map and follow it, beeping every 5 seconds. The lesson is structured to give hints and tips along the way, and through these "construct/program/test" sequences, the user learns valuable lessons in robotic logic and design.
The RIS development environment has an intuitive interface. To write programs, you drag blocks of code with command statements (such as "set direction" and "on") into contiguous rows of code. Throw in some logic and sensor blocks and you are finished. Then with two clicks of the mouse, you can upload your program to the RCX and test your robot.
There are some minor flaws, however. First, the RIS program runs in Win 95 only, can use only 256 colors, and does not resize to larger screens--a real pain while programming larger code segments. Second, we could not disable any sounds. Last, the firmware on the RCX was erased several times while in use, requiring us to back up and reload the software.
We loved LEGO MindStorms. As a seasoned LEGO user (just ask my mother), this author wishes he could have had this when he was 12.
LEGO MindStorms. Street price: $200. Requires: Microsoft Windows 95, Pentium 90-MHz processor, 50MB hard disk space, 16MB RAM, Sound Blaster-compatible sound card, one free serial port, CD-ROM drive, VGA display set to 256 colors. LEGO Group, Enfield, CT; 800-243-4870; www.legomindstorms.com.