The Man Who Bought A Toy For His Kid and Kept It For Himself

LEGO MINDSTORMS isn't just the newest toy on the shelves this holiday season -- it is the beginning of an obsession and a trip back to adolescence for Eric Huelsman. Come and learn how you can build robots, real robots that can complete any task you set your mind to.

The Robotics Invention System 1.5 TM gives users the ability to create programmable robot inventions. © 2000 The LEGO Group.

It's funny, the baggage an artist carries through life. Memories, good and bad, tend to be the measure of any artist's repertoire. And animators, being the consummate artists that they are, are certainly no exception. But where an animator's repertoire does seem to be exceptional is that it is typically a treasure trove full of memories of much-loved toys of the past. Hence...

When I was a boy, one of the best Christmas presents I ever got was a Mattel six-shooter. It was, to be exact, a Deputy Fanner... a nifty little Colt .45 replica with ivory (okay, plastic) handles... a ringer for the gun Little Joe used on Bonanza. Worked like the real thing, too. It used Greenie stik'm' caps and shot spring-loaded "Shootin' Shell" bullets, just like the ones in the television ad. That ad used to show kids shooting the Fanner at an upside-down bucket, the bullets making a very nice "ting-tang" sound. But believe you me, when I repeated this demonstration at home with my mom's old wash bucket, the sound those little plastic bullets made was absolutely delicious.

One possible configuration using the Robotics Invention System TM that allows the programming of robots to be simple. © 2000 The LEGO Group.

That same Christmas I got an Erector Set. Needless to say, I damn near wore out my six-shooter before I finally got around to that Erector Set. But one rainy day, when I had no more stik'm'caps and the last of my bullets had rolled under our musty old couch, I wearily dragged out my Erector Set box and opened it for the very first time. Wow. What a surprise! Everything looked so cool. So many shiny pieces of metal. So many doo-dads of all sorts, nuts, bolts...Big boy fare! And then, of course, there was that little motor and the chain. Neat-o. I began to assemble my first crane.

For the next six months my Deputy Fanner collected dust as I spent all my spare time with the Erector Set. Many a feverish night I sat huddled under the blankets with a flashlight, poring over that erector set manual. Mom, ever worried that I had discovered my Dad's stash of girlie magazines, threw back the covers one night, only to find to her relief that her son was getting off on windmills and tractors, not Misses February and March. Relief would turn to horror, however, when Mom realized what a techno-nerd I had become. It wasn't like I was a prodigy or anything. After a while my late night projects had become an obsession and Mom began to worry. She even hinted at where Dad kept the mags. Didn't work, however. By the time I exited puberty I had no less than three Erector Sets, including an advanced discovery set that came with a wired remote control.

LEGO My LEGO

As a grownup I have come to appreciate a few toys that have arrived on the scene since my youth, but not many. I have, for example, always thought the whole LEGO thing was pretty cool stuff. I'd had Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys, and thought LEGO would've been neat to have as a kid. But as an adult I pretty much dismissed building LEGO, much preferring, well...girlie magazines. Funny thing, though, how, when I was supposedly working on a screenplay at my writing partner's house I always managed to dig out and fool with his prized LEGO collection -- every time I visited his house!

Then I got married and started a family. On a whim, I bought my first son a LEGO kit and "helped" him put it together (hell, the kid was only two). One kit led to two, two to four, and I guess you can guess the rest. Now, if I could only muster the courage to just let go and let my son play with er, his LEGO.

LEGO MINDSTORMS TM and Star Wars join forces in the Droid Developer Kit TM. © 2000 The LEGO Group.

The LEGO MINDSTORMS Robotics Invention System 1.5

Back in 1998, during a visit to the E3 show, I stopped and watched in utter amazement the little robots the LEGO display had going. I then told my publisher, Dan Sarto, that if a motorized LEGO article ever had to be written, I was to be his man, and, as luck would have it, I am! To write the LEGO article, I mean.

This August my editor emailed me the good news that I would be doing this article and I was elated. Negotiations began and a couple of months ago I received a LEGO Robotics Invention System Droid Developer Kit. I opened the box and YOWZA - Déjà vu! Just like my old Erector Set, there sat hundreds of tiny little pieces in individual plastic packages. And an RCX module. Neat-o. I'm gonna build a robot.

This, people, is an amazing toy. Simply put, you gotta have one. You're building honest-to-god robots here. When I started building it, it was under the pretense of writing an article. Now I'm hooked. It is just that fun. First of all, all the pieces snap together in the same old LEGO way, but with this twist...they have made lots of custom, robot-looking and acting pieces. Moreover, the pieces are built so that you do not have to use only LEGO's guides. You can strike out on your own. And building is only half the fun. Wait 'til you play with it. What a blast! They do really neat things. In fact, the whole RIS scheme is so fiendishly clever as to make you wonder if it isn't some sort of alien plot.

Powered by the Micro Scout TM LEGO microcomputer, inventors can design and build their own Star Wars droids. © 2000 The LEGO Group.

What Makes the LEGO Robotics Stuff So Damned Much Fun

At the center of the Robotics Invention System kit is a small, programmable robot brain called the Robotic Command Explorer or RCX. The RCX can be programmed using (only) a PC...sorry, Mac fans. Included in the basic kit is CD-ROM software, two motors, two touch sensors, one light sensor, an infrared transmitter, a Constructopedia building guide and over 700 LEGO pieces. The RCX is the brain of all the LEGO MINDSTORMS creations and incorporates the same "brick" construction method as does any other LEGO toy, meaning that LEGO pieces can be made to attach directly to it. Typically, the RCX is the central structure of any robot and usually has sensors that let you do lots of neat little things with it, such as make the robot roll forward, roll backward, play a little sound...all from the flick of a flashlight.

Now, just in case you like to be challenged -- and what self-serving animator doesn't like that? -- there is the issue of building a robot without any written instructions. This is a LEGO tradition (a LEGO-cy, if you will), and hey, they didn't spare us when it comes to building these robots. Fear not, dear reader. Included with the RIS kits are CD-ROMs (again, PC only) that present the entire system in a graphic, interactive way. This greatly avails the first-time LEGO user, as those unfamiliar with text-less instructions might find the kits a little daunting should you get confused by what you're looking at.

The RCX TM component is the brain of LEGO MINDSTORMS TM inventions -- an autonomous LEGO microcomputer that can be programmed using a PC. © 2000 The LEG

Programming Your Robots

For you hard-core computer geeks out there, each of the RIS kits' RCX modules has been built around a thing called RCX Code, which is the LEGO programming language. RCX Code has the ability to subnest commands and use more program blocks, which allows for creating more complex programs. The RCX programming language is comprehensive and easy to learn. Included in the newest 1.5 version are new tools that help you learn about what a code block is, while the Try-out tool allows you to see what a block does. The Copy tool lets you quickly copy a stack of blocks.

Programming can be as elaborate or as simple as one chooses, depending on the level of complexity and tasks people set for themselves. A first-time user with basic PC skills can design, program and build a simple robot within one hour. To ensure a positive first-time experience, there is a series of easy to understand training missions for building basic robots. Additionally, through the Program Vault it is easy to organize programs in multiple folders, as well as move programs from the Program Vault to the desktop, to a floppy disk, and back. It is also easy to delete unwanted programs. For quicker reference of what your programs do, the Logbook has been moved into the Program Vault. In addition, all programs are now backwards compatible. This means that Robotics Invention System 1.5 users can use programs from version 1.0.

There are three new robot families in the LEGO MINDSTORMS Robotics Invention System 1.5: the Roverbot, the Acrobot and the Inventorbot. Each has its own unique abilities and skills: the Roverbot is a steady going robot that moves around, avoids obstacles and can follow a line; the Acrobot is a fast moving robot that flips and dances; and the Inventorbot is a smart, attentive robot that can greet you and help you in many other ways. In addition to the new models, the Robotics Invention System is now modular. This means that the Roverbot's, Acrobot's and Inventorbot's body parts are plug-and-play. By snapping on a new arm, leg or head, you can quickly change the functionality of the robots. Also, Vision Command and Exploration Mars are two expansion sets that can be purchased for these robots.

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Robots that see. Vision Command TM lets you build and program robotic inventions that respond to what they see. © 2000 The LEGO Group. Another Vision Command TM configuration combined with the Robotics Invention System TM. © 2000 The LEGO Group.

Vision Command

Vision Command is a neat entrée in the MINDSTORMS livery. Due out by the time you read this, it uses a low-res camera to perform robotics missions that require the use of sight. It can be programmed on your PC to respond to motion, color or light. If used alone, it can be made to be anything from a motion sensitive spy camera (imagine the possibilities there, kids!) to a music synthesizer played with a wave of the hand. I myself will probably get one for the following reason: imagine the possibilities of using a camera-mounted robot during a hand count in Florida...

When combined with the Robotics Invention System, the camera becomes a revolutionary vision sensor smart enough to be the eyes and brains of your robot, which means you can have it do everything short of counting ballots in Broward County.

Exploration Mars

Exploration Mars is the third expansion set for the Robotics Invention System. Launched in March, 2000. Designed in association with The Planetary Society, Exploration Mars lets you build and program inventions that simulate the tasks of actual Mars missions.

One possibility using the Exploration Mars TM expansion set in conjunction with the Robotics Invention System TM. © 2000 The LEGO Group.

LEGO TECHNIC CyberMaster

With LEGO TECHNIC CyberMaster, children can build a computer-controlled robot gladiator instructed to compete with a hand-held LEGO fighter. The gladiator can be programmed with different personalities. The robot, through the computer, talks to the child throughout the game, tries to out-maneuver the hand-held fighter and sends scores to the computer. A number of intelligent robotic vehicles can be built and instructed to move as the child wants. There are one-player and two-player options. A stand-alone computer, i.e. home PC computer, is required for both LEGO MINDSTORMS and LEGO TECHNIC CyberMaster. However, it should be noted that LEGO MINDSTORMS and LEGO TECHNIC CyberMaster are not compatible.

Cultists Beware

The interesting thing about this phenomenon, if you will, is that it seems to be in its infancy as a wildly popular format, and will be heading into "adolescence" very soon. It is, by my estimation, about to become a very serious hobby with, perhaps, some decidedly cultish overtones. The college crowd is very definitely already involved and I think they will be becoming more inclined as this hobby grows. Students at several of the leading engineering universities already have personal Websites dedicated to building these robots and are forming a cottage industry of gadgets and devices. I would expect to see more of the MIT-sorts getting involved and creating complicated robot actions using relatively simple code. Already what they have achieved far exceeds the original RIS design. And just wait until the real artists get involved and start designing robots that defend castles, have laser tank battles and the ilk. These sorts of activities are talked about on the many (meaning the dozen or so) Websites dedicated to the whole RIS craft. Whew! It's not gonna be a source of fun and information, it's gonna be its own sport!

But despite my reservations for anything with such blind devotion lent it, I can't over-express my enthusiasm for this toy. It is truly fun for the whole family, even my Mom likes it. But most of all, it is a relatively harmless way for me to get back to my adolescence. I guess the only thing I have to be ashamed of is that my wife just got me a subscription to Playboy. And that I have yet to give the kit back over to my son. Maybe in twenty years or so. I really don't want him to mess up the cool robot I just built two days ago.

When not sweating article deadlines, Eric Huelsman is the director of the Friedman 3D Computer Animation Program in Los Angeles.