The World of Lego Robotics

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When Ole Kirk Christiansen began fashioning wooden toys in his workshop in 1932, little did he know the future outcome of his venture. Eighty five years later, long after his demise, that same workshop that became his favourite place of solitude continues in operation. With a whole new look since inception, and a product range that matches a modern era, the Lego company has gone from strength to strength and has grown to epic proportions. Servicing the play time of children around the globe, what began as a one man operation has turned into a massive blue chip corporation with a reported turnover of $5.4 bn in the last financial year. Without any significant changes to its end product, over the years Lego has erected a number of amusement parks worldwide and have also successfully moved into the world of motion pictures and video games. What’s even more intriguing is that the company is still family owned with the majority shareholding held by the Christiansen family. Yes, the heritage is pretty interesting, but how has Lego influenced the world of gadgets? Well if you are familiar with the product ranges you will know of the Lego Mindstorms series. A series that revolves around building your own robot… and then programming it!

Lego Mindstorms Generations

First was the Lego Mindstorms: the Robotics Invention System, launched in 1998 followed by the Lego Mindstorms NXT, launched in 2006. The current generation, the Lego Minstorms Ev3 was launched in 2013. All three generations revolve around the use of a programmable device called the programming brick. This device is programmed with a computer or tablet and forms the brain of the robot.

Lego Mindstorms: the Robotics Invention System

The RCX (Robotic Command eXplorers) was the first generation programmable brick. It could be programmed using RCX code or Robolab which was based on LabVIEW. A 16MHz processor coupled with 32Kb of ram made up its cpu resources. Other parts in the kit consisted of motors as well as touch and light sensors.

Lego Mindstorms NXT

The second generation programmable brick had a 48MHz processor with 64KB of ram. Programming in the ‘retail kit’ was done in with Robolab. Other parts consisted of servo motors, sound, distance and touch sensors and a light. The NXT 2.0 and NXT-G was also released around the same time, with the NXT 2.0 having an extra touch sensor while the NXT-G was an educational kit that came with Robolab as its programming language.

Lego Mindstorms EV3

In the retail version of the latest generation, the programmable brick runs Linux, whilst the educational set runs Labview. It boasts a 300MHz processor, 64Mb of ram and 16Mb of flash memory. It also has a Usb port and Micro Sd slot. In terms of wireless connections, it supports Wifi and Bluetooth connections. Other parts consists of 2 large motors, 1 medium motor, 2 touch sensor, 1 colour sensor, 1 gyroscopic sensor and an ultrasonic sensor. The educational set, however, does not contain enough Legos to build the designs that come in the retail sets.

Target Audience

With specs lie these it is difficult to pinpoint a target market. While the product in its entirety is targeted at children 10 and above, the implementation of complex programming features and capabilities requires the assistance of an adult. Hardly surprising that most of the buyers of the retail version are indeed adults. The educational versions however, are targeted at young learners with an aim to spark an interest in the field of engineering.

The move from play

With the arrival of the Mindstorms series came some restriction. A characteristic nostalgic of the old era, Lego sets were more open source, encouraging builders to use their own imaginations. In contrast, current sets come with a step by step instruction manual detailing what to build placing great restriction on what may be built.

Lego BOOST – the future

Image Credit: Lego.com

Already available on pre-order, Lego plans to launch their new robotics kit called Lego Boost next month (August 2017). Similar to the programmable brick used in the Mindstorm series, this kit makes use of a ‘move hub’. The move hub is a Lego stud covered brick which comes with a built in tilt sensor and a selection of connections for included motors and a sensor that combines colour and distance detection. Much smaller than the Mindstorms Ev3 programmable brick, the move hub essentially serves only as a transmission device. Without a processor or processing capabilities, all processing tasks are passed on from the move hub to the Lego Creative Toolbox app on the user’s mobile phone; which explains the move hubs small size. From the Creative Toolbox, users have full control over the robot and can easily programme movements, record speech and essentially control the robot.

Less intimidating than the Mindstorms Series, the Boost kit is aimed at 7+ and the app makes coding easy by way of a Graphical User Interface. Programming is done by ‘dragging’ bricks in the virtual world in contrast to ‘building’ bricks in the real world. With a shift in focus from actual coding to app coding, a greater emphasis has been placed on ‘physically’ building. While the kit comes standard with directions for building 5 robot models, the Creative Toolbox allows for kids to programme a robot to do anything they want. This increases creativity as children are not confined to building the standard robot models.

Mindstorms vs Boost

Lego has announced that it does not intend on replacing the Mindstorm series. The Mindstorm series being a more powerful kit, is aimed at ages 10+ while the Boost series is aimed at 7+. This presents the idea that the BOOST is the little brother of the MINDSTORMS series, intended to gently ease children into the world of programming. Furthermore with fewer specialities comes less technicality meaning that the bricks have moved back to being more open sourced and that old sets may be mixed together with the new series. In terms of pricing, the Boost will sell at $159.99 making it accessible to many more families, unlike the Mindstorms series which sells at a much higher price.

 

Conclusion

With much hype over the release of the Boost, one can only hope that it will live up to expectations and does not follow the dreaded path of the Lego Fusion. Whatever the path, with the new generation of children being confined to a digital world, a move to bridge the gap between a physical and virtual playground had been long overdue and Lego might have just managed to achieve that.

 

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