I've always found building stuff to be incredibly satisfying. Whether it's a something I've hauled home from Ikea, or just a ham and swiss on rye, there's always just a little sense of achievement that makes me feel good. Back when I was six it was Lego blocks, but even the most awesome Lego creations like airplanes and cars would move only if they were propelled by my one-kid power drive system, me. Unfortunately, pushing your toys around just won't cut it anymore for anyone who's been raised on a diet of high-action videogames, so a few years back Lego introduced a robotics system called Mindstorms RIS that let you bring your Lego creations to life. After downloading a set of operations from your computer to the RCX controller, the RCX would then control the various motors and sensors to make your robot perform various simple tasks. This was all great fun, but now the system has finally received a long-deserved update with the arrival of Mindstorms NXT.
WHO WANTS THISAnyone — young or not so young — with an interest in robots.
WHYIt lets you start with simple step-by-step projects, then once you've mastered the basics, you can start developing your own super-cool ideas.
WHAT'S COOLThe new Mindstorms NXT controller is Bluetooth-capable. Open-source firmware lets the hacker in you create your own custom operations. Tons of online support for users at all levels.
WHAT'S LAMEThe memory can run a bit short at times. The NXT controller isn't backward-compatible with older Mindstorms components or sensors.
FINAL MARK: A Just the sort of hands-on diversion needed for someone at risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.
PRICE: $250Sure it's pricey, but you get plenty of hardware for your money.
I built a basic three-wheeled vehicle that Lego calls a TriBot, then added a set of grabber arms to pick up a ball on command, move it to a different spot, and release it. Because this was a test piece to check out the different components, I added an ultrasonic sensor to allow it to "see" the ball, a bumper that would push the touch sensor to stop the robot if it encountered an obstacle, a light sensor so that the robot would stop on a specific line to release the ball, and a sound sensor to hear the clap that would tell it to pick up the ball.
Putting it all together involved lots of sifting through hundreds of tiny parts, many of which are quite similar to each other, and taking extra care to ensure that you assemble them in exactly the right position and orientation. All of the details needed are there in the instructions if you study them carefully, but if you find building Ikea furniture to be a challenge, NXT robot assembly might drive you to drink. Once you have the physical robot built, the next step is to create the program and then download it to the NXT controller. The programming interface lets you graphically string together a series of commands, with a number of options determining exactly how each command is carried out. The scope for customization is pretty mind numbing, but it's easy to keep things simple until you get the hang of things.
Finally, the moment of truth arrives when you put your creation down on the test pad and let it rip. I found I needed to tweak some of the sensor adjustments a bit, but on about the third try, bingo!
The NXT brick runs off of six AA batteries and has a built-in display that lets you to set up basic operations. An integrated speaker allows you to give your creation some suitably robotic sounds. All of the cabling and software you need to get up and running is included — all you have to provide is a compatible Mac or PC.