Officially, lego mindstorms is a plaything for children as young as 10. But there's no upper age limit for the robotic building system--which combines the company's plastic construction pieces with motors, sensors and other electronic gadgetry--nor are there any clear boundaries to what users can do with it. Since the first version of Mindstorms debuted in 1998, hobbyists have taken advantage of the eminently hackable system to create bots that make pancakes, solve Rubik's Cubes and turn conventional toilets into robo-flushers. The latest version, unveiled on Jan. 7 at Las Vegas' International Consumer Electronics Show, has even more programmable bells and whistles. "Lego robots are real robots," says Lasse Lauesen, 27, a computer-engineering student at Denmark's Aalborg University who as part of a school project used Mindstorms motors and helium balloons to create a remote-controlled blimp. "You can do anything."
Developed in consultation with MIT's Media Lab, the robotics kit has managed over the years to captivate both run-of-the-mill middle-schoolers and world-class robotics experts. Lego includes drag-and-drop icons for kids with no programming experience and encourages the tech-savvy to tinker with its open-source code. The company even asked Lauesen and other enthusiasts for input on what to include in its first major upgrade since 2006. Mindstorms EV3, which is due to arrive in stores this summer, will retail for $350, a hefty price tag until you consider all the cool stuff it comes with, including an oversize programmable brick (which looks a tad like an old-school iPod and serves as a bot's brain), touch sensors and infrared vision to help bots identify objects they can be programmed to pick up, push or otherwise manipulate. The third iteration of Mindstorms is the first to come with mobile-device capabilities; iPhone and Android apps let users create simple programs and remotely control their creations. A few shakes of a smart phone can make a robo-snake slither and lunge at you (or your terrified cat).
The kit includes 594 beams, gears, pins and other pieces from Lego's advanced Technic line as well as plans for 17 bots that can move under their own power and interact with the world. These blueprints tend to be for aggressive-looking critters that shoot projectiles, bash things with hammers and otherwise throw their weight around. However, the basic idea behind Mindstorms--that the best toys are ones you invent and construct yourself--is the same one that has proved endlessly appealing since the first Lego bricks rolled off the assembly line in Denmark 64 years ago. "We spend a lot of time making awesome models," says Oliver Wallington, a Lego designer who worked on the new Mindstorms. "But ultimately, we want [kids] to take it all apart."
Mindstorms has long been used to teach young people about robotics, a practice that Lego encourages with a special version for schools, complete with its own curriculum. The company cosponsors annual bot-building competitions for elementary and middle-school students; more than 20,000 teams from around the world faced off last year.