Lego robot builders unite

Danish company selects 100 people out of more than 9,600 applicants for its Mindstorms Developer program. Photos: Building blocks for bots

When Geoff Gray got a phone call at work from Lego recently, the longtime fan of the iconic plastic bricks did a little dance around his cubicle.

Gray is one of 100 people Lego . Gray and his fellow selectees will be the first members of the public to get their hands on Mindstorms NXT, the latest generation of the company's programmable robot toys.

Legos, which range from the old-fashioned building blocks to the cutting-edge Mindstorms sets, have enjoyed "geek chic" status in recent years, and much of that has to do with the company's efforts to embrace its often-rabid customers. Last year, for example, some Lego fans figured out a way to hack the development tools on a company Web site. Instead of going after them with lawyers, Lego responded by saying, essentially, "That's terrific."

"Companies are (often) worried they'll get sued over something, and they lock themselves out of opportunity," Gray said. "Lego is saying, 'What does it harm us if someone comes up with an alternate way of doing (things)?'"

The Mindstorms developer program is just the latest example of that customer embrace. The 100 Lego fans named last week have a chance to help develop the product by road-testing it in ways Lego never anticipated, and then share their impressions with Mindstorm executives.

"I think it's extremely valuable for Lego" to get its users involved in Mindstorms, said Gray, who does enterprise software support for Microsoft. "I know from past beta work I've done for Microsoft that feedback we get from customers is different from feedback we get back from the (internal) beta testers."

Mindstorms NXT has a lot of people excited beyond Gray and his fellow developer program members. It is the latest update to Lego's line of programmable bricks, which first came out in 1998. But the 2006 iteration--which is expected to be publicly available in August--gives users the ability to build and program robots that incorporate visual, sound- and touch-sensitive sensors and that can be controlled wirelessly using Bluetooth devices like cell phones.

Mindstorms director Soren Lund said his team knew their open call for applications to the developer program would get the Lego community energized, but he wasn't sure how many people would actually get it together to enter the competition.


"We thought, if we get 1,000 to sign up, that could be really cool," Lund said. "If we could get 2,000, that would be crazy."

The actual response probably sent Lund and his colleagues reeling. More than 9,600 people from 79 countries submitted applications. That made the job of whittling down the entrants to a pool of 100 selectees--14 people had been participating in secret before the competition opened to the public--a little difficult.

"We went from 9,600 to 450, and that was the first big step, and then we went another round from 450 to 150," Lund said. "Then it becomes tougher and tougher because they're all so good, and I feel sorry for this guy and sorry for that guy" Lego didn't choose.

The 100 developer-program members Lego announced Friday come from 26 countries (though 40 percent are American), range in age from 18 to 75, and are heavily technical. Only six are women.

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