Fancy yourself a robotics expert? Like Lego? Own a smartphone or tablet? Lego Mindstorms EV3 might be the type of toy for you.
Lego Mindstorms, a programmable robotics kit, has been around for a number of years, but the latest kit coming this fall finally adds support for smartphones and tablets via an app, an exciting development when you consider that this app could act both as a remote control and a programming tool.
Alas, that iOS/Android app isn't available to test yet, but the rest of the EV3 box I was sent to play with matches what will be available on September 1. Like previous Mindstorms robots, you can connect to a Mac or Windows PC connectivity via software and a USB cable that plugs into the central Mindstorms Brick, which houses an ARM9 CPU and an LCD screen. You program Mindstorms robots this way, or on the Mindstorms Brick itself.
CNET last got a peek at the Mindstorms EV3 robots and their potential back at CES, but we've finally gotten a chance to look at the product for ourselves, with no hand-holding.
The $349 Mindstorms EV3 set has more than 550 pieces from the Lego Technic system, and all the parts you need to make a variety of robots, from a tanklike Tracker to a scorpionlike crawler to a mech biped with a pellet-shooting gun. There are three motors, an IR sensor, a color-sensing module, and a touch sensor. You could even connect Mindstorms up to Wi-Fi via USB, or add extra memory via an SD card slot.
The Brick has 16MB of flash memory, 64MB of RAM, and Bluetooth 2.1, four input and output ports that connect using phone-cord-like snap-in cables, and an LCD display with speaker.
So, how easy is it to make a Mindstorms robot? Lego's documentation claims it should take no more than an hour to get up and running.
I'd never set up a Mindstorms robot before. But, who better to use as a guinea pig to test how easy Mindstorms' setup is?
Intimidated? Yes, I was. I admit, I have previous experience putting together tons of Lego sets with my son, but I'm not a robotics person. The Lego-like documentation made sense to me; it would make sense to anyone who has bought Ikea furniture, too. It walks you through creating a beginner-level robot with easy step-by-step pictures. From there, you need to install the software to learn how to make other robots, and then take on preinstalled missions for each robot to learn extra features and programming steps. The box even unfolds to form a test-track surface.
An included remote control works with the IR sensor to execute preset functions or enable newly programmed ones from up to 6 feet away, and the IR sensor can also be used to detect distance and objects. Like all previous Mindstorms, the capabilities are vast -- the central Brick runs on an open-source Linux operating system, and new robot programs and builds can be easily shared online. This year's software also introduces 3D building instructions created via Autodesk.
It took me the better part of a day to assemble the starter "Track3r" robot, and you could always stop there and use it as an expensive remote-control toy. But the real fun is in continuing to build -- there are already 17 robot projects you can assemble, five that are official parts of the Mindstorms EV3 kit, and 12 additional creations from the Mindstorms user community.
Or, you could dive deeper into the programming experience, and just make that your pastime. Needless to say, the Mindstorms online community runs very deep, and EV3 is backward-compatible with older versions. Should you want to turn your kit into a full-blown computer-science project, you could.
I'm also here to say you could just enjoy playing around with building cool robots, like I did. As a parent with a kid who's already fully addicted to buying dozens of Lego sets, I appreciate that this one kit is made to do a lot of things in one box. It's a refreshing break from Lego's recent tradition of more limited-use playsets, although many of the Lego-intended Mindstorms robots seem to focus on themes of space battle, shooting things, and looking generally intimidating.
What I'm really interested in seeing, however, is how iOS/Android support will work. For that, we'll all have to wait until September 1. Stay tuned.