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How to build the robot of your dreams

September 10, 1998
Web posted at 12:15 PM EDT

by Bob O'Donnell


LEGO MindStorms robotic arm designed to transport soda cans.   
(IDG) -- Ah, Labor Day. The official end of summer, the traditional start back to school and the mental marker that signifies it's time to hunker down and focus back in on a productive fall work season.

At least, that's the theory. But for me, the reality is I just don't feel like it. Besides, I'm sick of reading about Microsoft vs. the Department of Justice and other "important" issues, so I figured it was time to do something fun. So, if you're looking for something practical, just hit your browser's back button now because you aren't going to find it here this week.

Of course, the real reason for my column topic choice is last week's official debut of the LEGO MindStorms Robotics Invention System, one of several new high-tech toys that makes me wish I were a kid all over again. MindStorms takes the familiar LEGO building blocks idea to a new level by incorporating sensors, motors and a computer-programmable controller device that operates at the heart of the system. It's supposed to be geared for kids, of course, but as far as I can tell, it's got IS and computer geek adult written all over it.

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Designed in conjunction with MIT''s Media Lab, the MindStorms system lets you build a variety of fairly sophisticated robots and other machines, including a copier, an ATM-like candy dispenser and just about anything else you can dream up. The $200 package comes with a Windows 95 CD-ROM, serial port-based infrared transmitter, an RCX controller brick, two touch sensors, a light sensor, two motors, and over 700 other LEGO pieces. The RCX controller is essentially an 8-bit computer with 16Kb of ROM, 512 bytes of static RAM (SRAM) for firmware, and 32Kb of SRAM for user-created or downloaded programs.

The software on the CD-ROM walks you through some tutorials on basic robotics concepts and how they apply to the pieces included in the system. More importantly, it also lets you create your own custom programs that you can download to the RCX brick via the IR transmitter. The program uses a graphical programming language that lets you drag and drop small bits of code that can be used to make the attached sensors and motors perform a wide variety of different functions. According to a FAQ document on the MindStorms site, the company also includes an OCX control that will conceivably let you use Visual Basic to create programs for the RCX.

If you were really creative (and ballsy), you might even use that to justify the purchase of a MindStorms system as a learning tool on your company's expense account. In reality, however, until LEGO develops a special IS version of MindStorms that can field silly user questions, automatically reinstall Windows 95/98 on each desktop every two months or so, or rewire your network wiring cabinet, I don't suspect we'll see too many put to productive use in an IS department. That doesn't mean they won't be there, however. After all, you know what they say about all work and no play...

Bob O'Donnell has been writing about, talking about, analyzing, testing, and using computers and other high-technology equipment for more than 13 years. He also hosts "O'Donnell on Computers," a weekly computer talk show heard every Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on San Francisco Bay area radio station KSFO (560 AM) and on the Web via RealAudio. In addition, he is the computer expert on the "Meeting the Challenge" television program.

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