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Get ready to program! Lego's Mindstorms EV3 robots are here

The third generation of Lego's best-selling programmable robotics platform is here, and features more sensors, motors, and flexibility than ever. Plus mobile apps.

The brand-new Lego Mindstorms EV3 platform is designed to make it easy for adults and children alike to program robots. The new platform comes with an all-new series of sensors and motors. Out of the box, users will be able to build 17 different robots, including this one, Track3r.

LAS VEGAS--Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, start your programming engines: Lego Mindstorms EV3 is here.

The third full generation of Lego's programmable robotics platform, EV3 is aimed at both enthusiasts -- young and old -- and educators, and blows past the previous generation with a long list of new features that add speed and power, intelligent programmability, and more ways to communicate with the robots. Lego expects to begin selling the product, which includes 594 Technic pieces that can be used to make five different robots, this summer at a retail cost of $350. It will also release instructions for 12 additional robots at launch.

Lego released the first version of Mindstorms in 1998, and the second iteration, Mindstorms NXT, almost exactly six years ago at that year's edition of the International Consumer Electronics Show. This year, too, the global toy giant chose CES as the place to unveil Mindstorms EV3. In the interim, countless thousands of kids and adults alike learned to program and build their own robots thanks to Lego, and Mindstorms became the best-selling product in Lego's history, at least as measured by revenue.

In the interim, Lego developed a strong relationship with the enthusiast community and even turned to users to help figure out how the platform could best be used. Because Mindstorms NXT sold more in 2011 than it did upon its initial release in 2006, Lego knows there is still intense interest in the platform. And with Mindstorms EV3, a new generation of children, and plenty more adults are likely to become immersed in personal robotics. And as it did with NXT, Lego once again turned to its users to help develop EV3.

As with the two previous generations of Mindstorms, EV3 is about a simple programming environment designed to let almost anyone create robots that follow directions and carry out specific tasks. The system is built around a series of new sensors, as well as programmable intelligent bricks, each of which is meant to control a different motor, sensor, or screen. The bricks can be programmed to direct how a robot should move, for how long, and how far to go. Lego believes that almost anyone can get a Mindstorms EV3 robot up and running within 20 minutes of opening the box, and can even start programming their robots without turning on their computer.

This is one of the programmable intelligent bricks that make up part of the Mindstorms EV3 platform. Lego

Each programmable EV3 brick comes with an ARM9 robotic processor, an SD expansion slot and embedded 16MB flash memory, Linux, Bluetooth 2.1, iOS and Android compatibility, a USB 2.0 interface allowing Wi-Fi connectivity, four input and output ports, a Matrix display with a loudspeaker.

On the hardware side, Mindstorms EV3 features three interactive servo motors, two touch sensors, an infrared seeker sensor that can measure distance, movement, and object detection, an infrared "beacon" designed to control the robots remotely from a distance of up to 6 feet, and a color sensor. Up to four bricks can be daisy-chained, and the USB port and Wi-Fi connectivity allow for a wide range of expansion. Mindstorms EV3 is also backwards compatible with all Mindstorms NXT robots, allowing users to utilize everything they bought during the NXT generation with EV3.

Programming environment
Perhaps the most important element of the Mindstorms EV3 platform is its programming environment. While the primary way users can program their Mindstorms robots is to do so in the development interface on their computers, and then download the instructions to the robots, the intelligent bricks also have an interface that allows for simple programming. At the same time, Lego will soon release mobile apps that can be used to design programs for the robots.

Lego knows that the enthusiasts who play with Mindstorms EV3 want to get started right away, so the new version of the platform features motors and sensors that know what and where they are so that the second they are powered on, they appear in the programming interface, ready to be controlled. Similarly, any new motors or sensors that are plugged in will also automatically appear.

The Mindstorms platform has always been about sharing, with users encouraged to upload their creations to a common Web site. And that is more true than ever with EV3. While Lego will release instructions for 17 different robots at launch, it expects users to come up with thousands more unique designs that can be shared among the worldwide Mindstorms community.

Deadly accuracy
In a demo of the product at CNET last month, Lego executives showed off some of the impressive capabilities of the Mindstorms EV3 platform.

Spik3r, a spiderlike robot, is able to fire little balls with deadly accuracy. Lego

For example, a spiderlike robot called Spik3r was able to automatically identify the location of the remote-control beacon and fire little red balls directly at it, hitting it more often than not. Then it charged at the beacon.

With its sensors, another one of the robots was able to detect when someone's hand was in front of it, and when there was, it lashed out. Another demo showed how one of the robots was programmed to weave its way around a small obstacle course, knocking little tires over along the way -- intentionally -- and then hitting a specific color sensor.

Lego has long worked closely with the global education community, and that's no different with Mindstorms EV3.

The company began letting teachers in on its plans for the new platform quite some time ago, it said, looking for the educators' input on how to best position Mindstorms EV3 as a learning tool for children, and how the new product can best meet teachers' needs. All told, Lego talked to more than 800 teachers around the world, it said.

One of the most important questions it wanted to be able to answer was how even non-tech-savvy educators could easily bring Mindstorms into their classrooms. And that meant figuring out what those teachers would need to successfully understand the platform and then help their students learn from it.

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What became clear, Soren Thompson, from Lego Education, explained, is that teachers need to be able to build a program around Mindstorms EV3 in as little as 45 minutes. Ultimately, though, the goal of Thompson and his colleagues in Lego's Education program is to make it possible for kids to quickly learn the platform and understand how to build their own robots.

And, Lego is emphasizing the ability teachers will have to build robotics curricula using Mindstorms that they can then easily share with other teachers around the world.