I'll never forget that Christmas morning in 1984 when I got the mother of all Lego sets, the medieval castle, and how happy I was snapping the colored pieces together to build it higher and higher. So it was a special treat for me to open up the latest iteration of the Lego franchise, a sophisticated system of sensors, motors and computer controllers called Lego Mindstorms NXT.
Lego has come a long way from the little bricks I played with as a kid. The company now manufactures 15 billion bricks and other pieces a year. The first motorized Lego kit appeared in 1966, and the mechanical Technic systems debuted in the late 1970s. In 1998 Lego teamed with M.I.T. to launch the first edition of Mindstorms, which brought together motors, mechanical parts and a simple programming language for the purpose of--what else?--building robots.
For a starter kit, the NXT box I cracked open was packed with some pretty high-tech gadgetry. For $250, you get 577 pieces, including sensors that can detect sound, light, touch and obstacles (using ultrasound). You can even control it wirelessly with Bluetooth technology. Most robots are fun for a day or two. Lego offers a more lasting thrill; you can build a robot of your own design, play with it for a while, then pull it apart and build something else.
But that's not so easy as it sounds. Lego still uses the word-free pictorial-instruction system I grew up with, yet its world has become a lot more complicated. I rushed right in, of course, quickly throwing together a basic three-wheel bot. So far, so good. But when I loaded the software and started adding sensors and claws, things got dicey. And when I started programming, things got downright horrific. After several hours of frustration, I began to discover the rudiments of how to use virtual blocks of instruction to get the robot to move, respond to a clap, back up when it hit a wall. I finally got my little monster to pirouette, wave its lobster claws and shout "Lego!"
Although Lego says the kit is designed for kids ages 10 and up, it's probably best for high schoolers--or adults with a teenager or two to give them emotional support.