Build a Lego robot and the future will come

By Brian Bergstein
Associated Press

August 30, 2001

I'm a little disappointed in the 21st century.

By now, everything was supposed to come in sleek shades of silver, especially the flying cars confidently whooshing overhead. We should be speaking Esperanto, perhaps even communicating telepathically.

Most of all, where are the robots? With those earnest bundles of wires doing our hard work, we could have more time to plan vacations in space and reserve spots for our bodies in cryogenics labs.

So the chance to make my own robot at home with the new version 2.0 of the Lego Mindstorms Robotics Invention System sounded awfully appealing.

Mindstorms, recommended for ages 12 and up, uses the familiar Lego interlocking plastic blocks that have entertained generations of children (and budding architects).

But this kit has some important extras: touch and light sensors, for example, and a battery-powered computer "brain" that can be programmed to make wheels spin and arms move.

The commands are made with a few mouse clicks on a PC, thanks to software that comes on a CD and is downloaded into the Lego robot's brain via an infrared transmitter.

Lego, based in Billund, Denmark, introduced the Mindstorms line in 1998, and watched it become a huge hit not only with children but also with tech-savvy adults. Some tinkerers even hacked the Mindstorms code and made robots far more complex than those suggested in the Lego manual.

Version 2.0 has the same pieces as its predecessor but promises much simpler programming.

Instead of having to program motors individually, users can now simply tell their robots to move forward, zigzag or whatever. Another advance is that the infrared transmitter now plugs into a computer's USB port rather than a serial port — to improve speed.

Due to hit stores in late September, Mindstorms 2.0 will retail for $200; people who own the original version can upgrade for $20.

A programming tutorial that comes with the CD is very useful — detailed enough for people not overly familiar with the linear logic of computer programs, yet quick enough so as to not insult your intelligence.

The beauty of the system is that users can design robots themselves from scratch or build suggested models and animate them with programs that come with the CD.

Though I really wanted to build something that would fetch the newspaper or drive me to work, my girlfriend was much more realistic. She quickly assembled an 8-inch-tall robot suggested in the manual.

Since I have no engineering ability and limited patience, I decided to load into our new friend a program that came on the CD, though I did make some adjustments of my own.

And so now our apartment is protected by a robotic security guard made out of Legos.

When it detects a bright light — an intruder's flashlight, perhaps — it starts beeping. If we squeeze its hand, it will stop beeping and shake from side to side, as if to express utter relief that we're home.

But if you're a thief who fails to apply the reassuring squeeze, it will throw a little ball at you and beep some more.

Take that, criminal. You've just stepped into a real 21st century apartment.

Copyright 2001