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

by Eric Huelsman

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.

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.


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