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

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.

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.

The Exploration Mars TM expansion set lets you build and program inventions that simulate the tasks of Mars missions. © 2000 The LEGO Group.

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.

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.


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