Originally created 02/08/98

Lego going high tech



LONDON -- Sooner or later, history's great mechanical inventions all seem to make the leap to the electronic age. Cars, airplanes, printing presses, watches and countless other everyday devices contain microchips intended to make them do what they do better. Now the humble Lego brick joins the club.

By the coming holiday season, the Danish firm whose colorful plastic products seem to litter half the playrooms of America plans to introduce Lego Mindstorms, a kit that lets children design and build whimsical robots, then program them on a computer to operate on their own.

Kids and grown-ups who've been working with test kits have come up with such creations as a dice thrower, a bird feeder that photographs its avian visitors, a mechanical arm that can pick up a soft-drink can and a toy car that flips itself over every few seconds and runs off in the other direction.

On-board sensors let the robots avoid the edge of a table, say, or navigate around books set up as an impromptu obstacle course. The robots can play little tunes as they go about their business. Traditional Lego blocks can fit to them to create fins or faces or whatever decoration is desired.

It's strictly Rube Goldberg kind of stuff, a world of pulleys and oversized wheels and flying ping-pong balls. Lego and academics who helped develop the kit (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was instrumental) are churning out all sorts of fancy talk about how they're taking the early-learning process to new heights, teaching children "project management." It seems a better sell as a new form of creative fun.

Mindstorms is aimed at children aged 11 and older. Last week, Lego brought the press together here with some schoolchildren recruited by the company to try the system out. The children certainly did seem satisfied, showing off their creations for a pack of reporters and cameras, saying they'd been able to figure out the basics in an hour or so.

But I think not a few children (not to mention parents trying to figure it out on Christmas Day) will find it intimidating. It does come with animated instructions on CD-ROM, a World Wide Web site and sample designs for novices, but what the child eventually is working with is a big box filled with loose parts -- 700 of them! To me, it seemed about as easy as building a dinosaur from a pile of bones.

The self-starters of young America, and there are quite a few of them, will disappear up to their rooms for hours. The others will turn on the TV.

Not all parents will welcome the price, even if they like the idea. The basic kit will cost from $200 to $230, Lego says, with "expansion sets" going for $50 to $90. A Pentium multimedia computer with World Wide Web access also is required, and those start in the neighborhood of $1,000.

John Burgess's e-mail address is burgessj(at)twp.com.