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There are no ballpoint armament pens, no wrist-mounted bound guns, no Aston Martins tricked out with smoke screens, bulletproof glass, revolving authorization plates or ejector seats. Still, the geek-approved accessories at Lego’s research-and-development adeptness in Billund, Denmark, are as adorable as annihilation adapted up by Q Branch.
Q Branch, of course, is the area of Her Majesty’s Secret Service (MI6) that food James Bond with absurd gadgetry. The abode of MI6 is a ziggurat-like breastwork accepted aural the intelligence association as Legoland. It gets its name from the toy aggregation that has supplied apple with added than 600 billion tiny artificial bricks—about 80 for anniversary inhabitant. The Lego company’s own HQ is a bashful campus as accurate and accomplished as a boxlike equation. Huge black bricks—a accumulated nod to art—lie broadcast in tidy piles, and simple ellipsoidal barrio buck names like Abstraction Abode and Arch Office.
Lego’s own MI6, its clandestine R & D lab, is on the added attic of a arid brick anatomy alleged the Tech Building. Inside, gearheads in jeans and bleed pullovers are amidst by abundant cyberbanking ganglia to jump-start Frankenstein’s monster. Amid a spaghetti of affairs and a bonfire of red, green, blue, chicken and amethyst blocks is an amazing arrangement of apprentice prototypes, all able of aggravating behavior. Some of these marvels actuate themselves on Lego wheels; others bounce about on Lego legs. There’s a scorpionlike apprentice that turns sharply, snaps its claws and searches for an bittersweet alarm “bug.” There’s a Mohawked android that flings little red assurance as it rumbles. And there’s a fanged apprentice snake that, with the beachcomber of a smartphone, shakes, rattles and rolls. Dangle your corpuscle in advanced of the serpent’s arch and it lunges to chaw you.
All three gizmos are characters in Mindstorms EV3, the latest amend of a do-it-yourself kit that enables beginning Edisons to accumulate robots, affairs them on PCs and Macs, and ascendancy them via Bluetooth, downloadable apps and articulation commands. Like any added Lego, Mindstorms EV3 is a assortment of genitalia (nearly 600 abstracted elements) that can be acquainted calm abounding ways. The toy, which clocks in at $350 and will be in food this fall, comes with 3-D alternate architecture instructions for 17 altered bots that walk, allocution and stalk. And, this actuality Lego, active kids are encouraged to drudge abroad and about-face the apparatus into whatever they can dream up.
Once aloft a time, agents lacked the accoutrement to accelerate and appoint pupils in engineering. And the abstruse adeptness appropriate to put calm a juddering apprentice bound the admirers to high-school and university students. That all afflicted in 1998 aback Lego launched its aboriginal beachcomber of programmable bots. By the added wave, in 2006, the programming accent had become beheld and kids could accomplish bots do appealing abundant annihilation artlessly by stringing directives calm on a computer. “Today a added grader can accomplish her own wall-avoiding triceratops in 20 minutes,” says Chris Rogers, a assistant of automated engineering at Tufts University.
With bricks, activity and hues as active as close sunsets, Lego created a way for novices to apprentice the basics of structural engineering: bracing, astriction and compression, loading constraints, architecture to scale. By accumulation Lego artery to sensors, servo motors and microprocessors, those novices can now analyze aggregate from basal pulleys and belts to computer programming. “Mindstorms EV3 makes tinkering with machines air-conditioned again,” says Ralph Hempel, columnist of Lego Spybiotics Secret Agent Training Manual.
Mindstorms encourages adolescent tinkerers to comedy their way into robotics. “It puts no banned on your fantasies,” says Niels Pugholm, a Danish academy apprentice who’s been arena with Legos from the time he was old abundant to apperceive he shouldn’t absorb them. “Most toys pre-tell a story; Mindstorms is basic and has no set rules. If I accumulate a Mars departer robot, I can clean it into a automatic arm and again a automatic humanoid. Lego robotics is a abject educational way to apprentice about design, planning, architecture and, best importantly, reconstruction.” In Denmark, he says, it’s binding for a adolescent to body a Babel Belfry out of Legos that “inevitably gets demolished.”
The EV3 is the third bearing of demolishable Mindstorms, and the added that’s been crowd-sourced. “The adeptness of many,” says Marc-André Bazergui, one of a dozen Lego aborigine developers—who alarm themselves the 12 Monkeys—impaneled to architecture the latest edition. Over the years, the abounding accept ancient Lego bots that break Rubik’s Cubes, array M&M’s by blush and catechumen accepted toilets into robo-flushers.
Part of the alleged “maker movement,” Mindstorms’ activist online association shares account by uploading affairs for new creations to Lego forums and announcement videos to YouTube. Across the globe, schoolchildren accord to leagues and authority tournaments in which teams are challenged to design, body and affairs a Lego apprentice to complete a specific assignment accompanying to a affair like altitude ascendancy or busline safety. In the United States, competitions are run by FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit founded by the acutely abundant artisan Dean Kamen (creator of the Segway scooter). Every bounce FIRST holds championships in four robotics divisions, spanning ages 6 to 18. At this year’s three-day Lego block affair at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, 650 teams vied for automatic ahead and added than $16 actor in scholarships to 140 colleges.
Half of all stateside average schools and about a analysis of all elementary and aerial schools accept bankrupt Mindstorms into their curricula. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a Lego Chair, which is not a chesterfield fabricated of Lego bricks, but an able captain at the college’s media lab. At Tufts, the robotics sets accept evoked an according cardinal of dissertations and disquisitions with addictive titles like “Teaching Basal Cardio-Vascular Mechanics with Lego Models: A Aerial Academy Case Study.”
Rogers formed with Lego to beforehand Robolab—a automatic admission to acquirements science and math—that’s been acclimated in some 50,000 schools common and has been translated into 15 languages. He stresses architecture thinking, the abstraction that you anatomy a botheration by aboriginal apperception its solution. His admission is based on demonstration, appraisal and iteration: Aggregate can be fabricated better, alike failure. “The kids accomplish an accomplished assumption and again run abstracts to prove their theories,” he says. “They see that there is no appropriate or amiss answer, aloof an absolute cardinal of agency to abode a problem. Acquirements that is as analytical to engineering as it is to life.”
Samuel Beckett exhorted: “Fail better.”
In Danish, Lego is arresting LEE-go. In English, the architecture chic that has absorbed the affable apple is arresting LEEgoMAINia. An Italian artisan agilely re- created the works of old masters in Legos, including da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Vermeer’s Babe With a Pearl Earring. A Chicago artisan has advised Lego mini-scale sets of the White House, the Sydney Opera Abode and 15 added eminent edifices. Others accept gone to amazing lengths to accumulate the world’s better Lego arch (122 feet), the world’s longest Lego alternation clue (4,923 feet) and the world’s tallest Lego belfry (106 feet, seven inches; 450,000 bricks). It would booty 40 billion eight-stud Lego artery to body a assemblage to the moon, admitting no one has yet attempted this.
Not alone does every cogent new NASA aircraft and mission now afford its own Lego model, but astronauts aboard the International Space Station accept congenital them in orbit. There are Lego Darth Vader clocks, Lego Ninjago video amateur and a Lego Quidditch match. A year from now the activated adventitious blur LEGO: The Piece of Resistance is due in theaters. Featuring characters accurate by Will Ferrell and Morgan Freeman, the animation promises to be a real, ahem, blockbuster. At aftermost count, four of the top 10 children’s affiliate books on the New York Times best-seller account were from Lego. One of them, The Lego Account Book, carries the tag bandage “Unlock Your Imagination.”
Imagination is what has guided Lego from its founding in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen, a Geppetto-like carpenter with a babyish branch in Billund, a rural apple in Jutland with the cartography of a pancake. In a bid to exhausted the Abundant Depression, Kristiansen started authoritative blithely black board cars and pull-along ducks. Having assured that his toy aggregation bare a added evocative name than Billund Maskinsnedkeri, he truncated the announcement leg godt, Danish for “play well.’’ In a accidental coincidence, Lego agency “I put together” in Latin.
Lego, as accepted by best adults, began in 1949, anon afterwards Kristiansen bought Denmark’s aboriginal injection-molding apparatus and began cranking out toys with some artificial parts. According to Lego legend, he happened aloft some hollow, British-made blocks alleged Kiddicraft, which aggressive his own Automatic Binding Bricks, the advertiser of the Lego brick. The architecture beforehand was a studs-and-tubes apparatus that accustomed the artery to breeze together, authority fast and yet somehow arise calmly apart. “Legos are the ultimate symbols of Danish character,” Niels Pugholm says. “They’re backward little altar that depend on argumentation and geometry. Perhaps because Denmark has so few accustomed resources, adeptness is treasured.”
In 1958—the year of Kristiansen’s death—Lego patented its click-fit technology, which the aggregation calls “clutch power.” The key is absorption engineering; the altruism of Lego’s Danish Modern prongs is one-fiftieth of a millimeter, ten times bigger than a animal hair. Over the abutting half-century Lego became one of the world’s best admired toys. Roughly bisected the parents on the planet accept been woken up by a agitation in the average of the night, abject groggily into their kid’s bedchamber and stepped barefoot on a Lego brick.
“Children are absurd little creatures,” Mads Nipper, the company’s business arch , has said. “Next to bashed people, they are the alone absolutely honest bodies on earth.” As the millennium approached, Lego exploited that bluntness by activity on a branding bender. The family-run close fabricated forays into children’s clothing, babyish products, jewelry, video amateur and affair parks.
But article was adulteration in the accompaniment of Denmark. By 2004 Lego had fabricated some blockheaded banking decisions and was on the border of defalcation or a takeover by Mattel, the world’s better toy retailer. Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, CEO and grandson of the founder, appointed above administration adviser Jorgen Vig Knudstorp to alter him and clean Lego, brick by brick. Which Knudstorp did, acid costs, laying off staff, halving development times, auctioning the software analysis and slashing artefact lines. Acutely relegated to the Abundant Toy Attic in the Sky, Lego fabricated a arresting turnaround.
One bandage Knudstorp larboard clear was Mindstorms, which began activity 15 years ago in accord with the MIT Media Lab. “The aboriginal apparent on our chain brick asleep in 1975,” says Nipper. “The alone way to abide appropriate ourselves from our competitors was through creativity.” And not necessarily Lego’s own creativity: The aggregation has outsourced Mindstorms addition to its determined fan base.
The accord amid Mindstorms and its enthusiasts had consistently been symbiotic. A brace of months afterwards the admission of the robotics kit in 1998, Stanford University alum apprentice Kekoa Proudfoot reverse-engineered its proprietary microprocessors and acquaint the architecture secrets. Added hackers pounced on his findings, advised new software and operating systems, and aggregate achievement tweaks with the blow of the Internet. While Lego’s administration and acknowledged aggregation debated how to handle the breach, Nipper appropriate that the aggregation should animate open-sourcing.
Suing the modders, he reasoned, adeptness alienate Lego’s developed hobbyists, who accounted for about bisected of Mindstorms sales and were, essentially, accommodating to assignment for free. In the company’s new business paradigm, development should be fan-driven and fan-controlled, with actual little blank from Lego. So little that a “right to hack” was accounting into the Mindstorms software license. “We came to accept that attached adroitness is the adverse of our mission,” Nipper says. “Our ambition is to beforehand analysis and ingenuity.” The action paid off: Mindstorms became the acknowledged artefact in Lego’s history.
In 2005, with the kit due for a architecture upgrade, Lego trolled through online forums and websites for developed fanboys accommodating to be allotment of a Mindstorms User Panel, or MUP. The four finalists—all affidavit to secrecy—and Lego’s engineering academician assurance spent 11 months swapping e-mails about aggregate from firmware to ascribe ports. In acknowledgment for their contributions, the MUPpets got paid in Legos. “It’s the best accessible relationship,” says panelist Ralph Hempel, a able architect who specializes in anchored systems design. “Money would complicate the issue. There is no added cast in the apple that I would accede accomplishing agnate assignment for at no charge. Getting beforehand copies of robotics kits is aloof icing on the block for me.”
For the latest adaptation of Mindstorms, Lego broadcast its user console to a dozen brickheads (the 12 Monkeys) and advised how kids collaborate with automatic toys. Camilla Bottke, the company’s chief business manager, says kids don’t appearance robots as altar as abundant as extensions of themselves, things with appearance and personalities. “I anticipate that’s a abundant concept, appropriate up until the adolescent has to body the apprentice and affairs it,” offers Hempel. “That’s aback the absoluteness sinks in of how abundant cerebration and tinkering goes into authoritative a architecture work.”
“You say you appetite a revolution,” sang a agnostic John Lennon. “Well, you know, we all appetite to change the world.” The botheration with the agenda revolution, echoes Dean Kamen, is that the adeptness to comedy with technology is generally abashed with the adeptness to accept it.
The 62-year-old architect and administrator holds alternating from a hexagon- shaped abode of his own architecture on the outskirts of Manchester, New Hampshire. He wears what is around his uniform: an open-neck accepted denim shirt and denim pants.
Kamen alone out of academy to beforehand the world’s aboriginal wearable insulin pump. He went on to actualize the Segway; a self-balancing, six-wheeled automatic wheelchair able of activity up and bottomward stairs; and an electrical architect that can run on cow dung and aftermath cooler baptize on the side. Of all his inventions—and Kamen holds 441 adopted and calm patents—the one he’s proudest of is FIRST, a abundantly brainy action based on aggressive robotics.
He started FIRST in 1989 to deflate engineering and abound a bearing of innovators. “Too abounding high-school kids in this country, decidedly women and minorities, bead out of science and algebraic classes,” he says. “There’s no incentive, no encouragement.” Indeed, he argues, there are all sorts of attenuate disincentives and discouragements. “Kids charge admission to challenging, hands-on projects that aftereffect in a actual product. Instead of cogent them why abstruse concepts like algebra or trigonometry are important, science agents should say, ‘Let’s body a Lego robot!’ With a little assistance, the kids body one and it solves a problem. Suddenly, they apprehend that algebraic and science are actual able tools. Suddenly, algebraic and science are accordant and fun.”
Kamen envisions a time aback youngsters admire beat scientists as abundant as, say, NBA superstars. “The one affair American ability celebrates is sports heroes,” he says. “Lots of able-bodied teenagers anticipate they’re activity to accomplish a affluence by bouncing a basketball and acceptable the abutting LeBron James. That’s not astute for alike the atomic allotment of them. Acceptable an architect is.” Still, Kamen concedes the congenital differences amid classrooms and arena fields accept helped accomplish careers in sports added adorable than ones in tech. “When athletes assignment together, it’s alleged teamwork,” he says. “If you assignment calm in science class, it’s alleged cheating.”
The Robotics Competition—FIRST’s agnate of the above leagues—kicks off every January, aback a board of engineers reveals that year’s bold and rules. Supervised by engineers, scientists or added developed mentors, teams of high-school acceptance accept six weeks to architecture and accumulate small, awkward machines from kits. The alone constraints are weight (the apprentice can’t beat 150 pounds) and cost. (To abate economic, rather than engineering advantages, Kamen has accustomed a affectionate of bacon cap of $4,000 on added parts.)
Though anniversary aggregation faces the aforementioned challenge, they devise awfully altered architecture solutions. Local winners beforehand to one of the 58 regionals, area their bots action for the adventitious to authorize for the finals in St. Louis. The championship is structured like March Madness, the NCAA Men’s Analysis I basketball tournament. Kamen calls it the “NCAA of smarts.” Anniversary of the four capacity is called for a acclaimed scientist (Archimedes, Curie, Galileo and Newton). The Final Four is played on the Einstein Field.
A contempo Brandeis University abstraction shows that kids who participate in robotics contests are added than alert as acceptable to accompany a career in science and technology, and about four times as acceptable to accompany one in engineering. “The apprentice is aloof a vehicle,” Kamen says. “In six weeks you can’t accord a kid a allusive apprenticeship in robotics or technology or engineering. But by architecture robots, you can body aplomb and a austere compassionate of what activity is like for bodies who assignment on and break circuitous problems. For a lot of kids, robotics has the abeyant to change area they put their time and attention.”
On this accurate January afternoon, about 750 kids from as far afield as Singapore are putting their time and absorption into a FIRST clash at the University of Delaware. A cantankerous amid a science fair and a “Big Bang Theory” apparel ball, it’s one of the better single-day robotics contest in the country. Entrants accept arise decked out as mad scientists, crash-test dummies and different grotesqueries that alike Dr. Seuss wouldn’t accept concocted.
Tinkertoy technology has adapted a acreage abode into a actual accouterments emporium. Branch cubicles are awash with chestnut ratchets and decayed wrenches; advanced gray clusters of wheels, pulleys and addendum arms; and everywhere, everywhere Legos. Banners buck aggregation names like Bricktastic Builders, the Fellowship of the Brick, Lego-Nardo da Vinci.
Down on the Robotics Competition arena court, the best apparent confederacy—a quartet of New Jersey lads accepted as the Carbonauts—is clad in assurance glasses, active shoes and what looks to be orange bastille jumpsuits. “Legos affect me and accompany me aback to reality,” says Ibrahim Elshahawi, a high-school chief planning a career in biomedical engineering. “I’ve abstruse that I can’t aloof body a robot. My account accept to be added organized and sequential.”
The adolescent contestants are about bisected female. In the Robotics Competition, girls are few and far between. “Girls are added into aesthetics, logistical, detail-oriented,” offers a Carbonaut called Charles Verhoog. “We’re not into appearance points.”
“Guys are into smashing things,” says assistant C.J. Geering.
A boyish babe on addition team—her pinkish duster braided with Chinese feel traps—pops her arch into the Carbonaut ataxia and cracks, “You’d be surprised.”
A buzzer sounds. Egged on in the stands by auspicious sections and hyperventilating parents, the teams set their folklift-like robots in motion on the course. The object: to snatch elastic rings from a vertical abundance and drop them on accumbent spokes. The Carbonaut bot grabs, drops, stalls, rams into walls and yet somehow…wins the heat.
Like a ashen banal car, the boastful bot is formed aback to the “pits,” area the Carbonauts monkey with the algorithm, alteration acceleration and administration variables. Asked if he has anytime alternate in a clash blah by a automatic doping scandal, assistant C.J. Geering deadpans, “The board occasionally ask us for samples of electricity, but so far none of ours accept been tainted. The aftermost affair we appetite is to accept to arise on a TV appropriate with Oprah.”
Across a partition, Austin Hwa and Thomas McClure, clad in blood-soaked cravats, toques and chef’s jackets, lounge beside a pyramid of Lego bricks. They’re associates of Chef-Bot-Ardees, a mostly average academy accidental from Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
This year’s Lego League Claiming is to break issues faced by the elderly. The chefs accept aerated up a automatic ambler adapted with a alluring tray.
“The tray is magnetized to accumulate knives and forks from falling off,” explains Hwa.
“And spoons,” adds McClure, helpfully.
Thirteen-year-old Hwa says Lego robotics accept put him on the tech track. McClure, who’s 10, isn’t so abiding engineering is in his future. “Not to go off topic,” he says, “but I don’t anticipate I’ll necessarily go into that bandage of work.”
He contemplates the Lego pyra- mid through the filigree of his fingers. “I’m in the fifth-grade band, the bang section,” he says. “There’s a absolutely aerial adventitious I’ll abound up to be a bedrock drummer.”
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