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.

Mindstorms

"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. Lund said Lego was looking for people with expertise in any or all of three areas. First, the company sought people who demonstrated the ability to "build some great robots." Next, Lego wanted people who showed they would be able to write something significant about the program, be it books, reviews, blogs or training materials about Mindstorms. Finally, Lego was looking for people who could hack Mindstorms and help the company create a third-party programming environment.

For Bill Tinney, a Seattle-area Flash software developer, his ticket into the program was his determination to program Mindstorms NXT robots on Macintosh computers.

"I'm an avid Mac user," Tinney said, "and since (Mindstorms has) not been open to the Mac community before, I think they need to test it out there."

Neither Tinney nor Gray would say exactly what kind of robots they would build as development program members, since each signed a nondisclosure agreement. But the 114 participants in the program will likely be building all manner of bugs, monsters, animals, superheroes and flying beasts.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, Lund was showing off a collection of Mindstorms NXT robots that included a scorpion that would bite fans' hands, a slot-machine robot and robot that could move across a table and sense and pick up a ball.

Lego tried to ensure that the group was nationally diverse, and that each of the three categories of selectees were equally represented, Lund said. But his favorite was someone he'd never have expected to end up in such a program: a 75-year-old University of California at Berkeley professor who applied and said he wanted to use Mindstorms NXT as a teaching tool in his classes. Lund could not wait to admit the man to the program.

"He actually went through the screening," Lund said. "Isn't it amazing?"

One thing that helped Lego ensure that program applicants were serious about their interest was that those chosen will not get free Mindstorms product. While they will get a small discount on what they buy, the real lure, Lund said, is the chance to get involved early and have a real say in what comes next for the toys.

Some of those selected say that's exactly why they're involved.

"I want to look at every aspect of the NXT kit software and hardware that would affect me or my kids in any way, shape or form and merit it for being positive or negative, and see them hopefully be able to incorporate (my suggestions) into future designs?I want to take that (testing) experience and apply it so that they can have a more successful product," said Gray, who is an editor at the Lego enthusiast publication Brick Journal when he's not working for Microsoft.

And, Lund said, that is exactly what will happen.

"This is huge for Lego," Lund said. "The first (thing) we're asking them to do is really bang on the product."

He hopes many of the developer-program members will create attractive and impressive robots and that Lego will be able to showcase them on the Mindstorms NXT Web site when the product officially launches this summer.

"We (would) get them out on our Web site," Lund said, "so that the day we launch the product, it's not just a dead Web site."

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