Geeks in Toyland

From: Wired - 02/2006 - Vol. 14, No. 2, P. 104
By: Brenden Koerner

Lego sought the expertise of die-hard hobbyists to update its Mindstorms programmable robot kit, and their input resulted in Mindstorms robots capable of more realistic appearance and behavior. A group of Mindstorms enthusiasts - software engineer Steve Hassenplug, electronics engineer John Barnes, David Schilling, and Ralph Hempel - were tapped by Mindstorms director Soren Lund to serve on a Mindstorms User Panel (MUP) that would assist with the design of the upgraded kit. Brainstorming sessions between Lund's people and the MUP led to such innovations as a "brain brick" that receives data from sensors and transmits instructions to the robot's motors; the brick features a 32-bit processor that is four times as powerful as the previous Mindstorms processor, enabling the robots to perform more sophisticated tasks, such as walking with a human-like gait and responding to voice commands. The two-by-four Lego blocks used to assemble Mindstorms 2.0 robots have given way to technic blocks or "studless Legos," while the new kit's user interface, unlike the old one, is intuitive, graphical, PC-compatible, and equipped with drag-and-drop icons. Whereas Mindstorms 2.0 boasted only two motors, one light sensor, and two touch sensors, Mindstorms NXT adds another motor and complements reworked light and touch sensors with new sound and ultrasonic sensors. The old kit's two-wire analog cables have been replaced with six-wire digital cables in the new kit. These upgrades were designed with the goal of reducing Mindstorms' complexity, which Lund blamed for the product's lack of interest among younger consumers; a dramatic revamping of RCX-code, Mindstorms' programming language, was needed. Lego is planning to offer discounted pre-release versions of the NXT kits to Mindstorms hobbyists to put the new product through its paces.

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