BOOST! LEGO's computing future and its ground-breaking past

You know, for kids (but also, possibly, dads, nerds and life hackers)

CES 2017 Smart Wi-Fi-enabled hairbrush? Virtual reality shoes? Some visions of the future at this week's CES trade show simply won’t materialise. But what about building a 'bot made of LEGO?

Toymaker LEGO unveiled its Boost line this week at CES – a set of 840 programmable bricks for your kids to control self-made robots with.

Boost comes in five kits that include an interactive motor and colour and distance sensor, encoded monitors, tilt sensor and Bluetooth Low Energy connection. Programming is drag-and-drop via iOS and Android tablet.

You - or rather your kids - can build and program a robot named Verne, a rover vehicle, electric guitar, a purring interactive cat-type pet named Frankie, and an automated production line capable of building miniature Lego models.

Due in the second-half of 2017, Boost targets those aged seven and, ahem “older” – so, yes, that’s you, too, mum and dad nerds and life hackers – interested in learning programming. Boost comes courtesy of a toy manufacturer that has an uncanny knack for successfully embracing personal computing at just the right time.

LEGO was officially founded in 1934 as a maker of wooden toys and produced its first bricks in 1949, having taking delivery of a plastic injection-moulding machine.

Skip forward to the personal computing boom of the 1980s and LEGO first branched into PCs in 1986 with the Technic Computer Control.

The Technic range itself hailed from 1977, as the series moving beyond variations on a rectangle, square, lug or wheel to introduce moveable arms and joints.

But the Technic Computer Control introduced programming for kids' toys, albeit dressed up as education, during the white-hot era of the first Macs from Apple, Bill Gates’ fermentation of Windows and work with IBM, and the rise of ACORN, the BBC Micro and of Sir Clive Sinclair with the ZX81. Rival toy companies were not so bold. The closest toys to PCs at the time were computer games either from, or designed to, serve the hardware makers.

LEGO’s range included some simple light detectors and electric motors that, with a bit of lateral thinking and some strategically placed black and white bricks, could be turned into a simple closed loop system, as this 1991 article by Mike Cook for The Micro User magazine explained.

The education set, as well as motors, has a light bulb brick. This contains a filament bulb and there are coloured transparent bricks you can put in front of them. They are available in red, green and yellow, ideal for a traffic light project. These can be driven in exactly the same way as the 4.5 volt motor, although there is not as yet any such thing as a bidirectional filament lamp. You can however get bidirectional LEDs.

As Cook noted, the most advanced Technic Control Centre set was aimed “mainly [at] education users” which goes to show just how far-sighted Lego was back in those early days when dialup internet was still a mind-blowingly advanced household innovation.

The Technic Control Centre came with an optimistic box cover photo showing off a drawing made by programming the three motors the set was capable of handling.

Although it was only supplied with two motors by Lego, off the shelf, the addictive ability to expand and grow your sets in whatever way you pleased was part of the magic of Lego – and quite separate from the hellish agony of treading on one of the little blocks. Its chief feature was PC-attached plotters.

”Ingenious” was the word LEGO Technicopedia employed to describe the mechanical system used to control these computerized blocks.

The robotic plotter holds a pen and drives two wheels independently, allowing for zero radius turning. The pen plotter also holds the pen and has a platter for paper. The carriage can translate on two motorized axes. The robotic arm can slew, raise and lower the arm, and open and close the end effector. It includes a simple task to perform: sorting 1x2 beams into bins.

Finally, the mobile crane features outriggers, motorized slewing, and a motorized boom and jib. If it sounds like some of these models have more than two motorized functions, that would be correct. The models use an ingenious mechanical system to allow individual motors to control more than one function automatically.

Just over a decade later came the direct ancestor of this week’s BOOST – the Mindstorms range of programmable robots.

Mindstorms, released in 1998, was the first Lego range to explicitly include programmable complete robots, rather than individual components that could be assembled into sub-systems. The heart was a programmable brick running Lego’s RCX code hacked on either PC or Mac, but that came to work with more familiar, third-party languages including a port of Java and Microsoft’s Visual Basic, as well as compatibility with .NET – ‘cos that’s what kids were all about. Visual Basic and .NET.

Over the following years Mindstorms acquired sensors, servos, support for floating point operations and a broader range of languages.

Fifteen years on, LEGO updated Mindstorms with the ability to boot from a microSD card and run ev3dev - a Debian-based operating system. Four years after that, at CES this week, we have BOOST and a programmable, modular bot just as the tech world has moved to IoT and control from a smart device.

A computing future, from a company it seems, you can bet on. ®

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