As Christmas approaches and most of you might be doing last minute shopping – like me – I wanted to recommend an excellent article in this month’s IEEE Spectrum Magazine. In it, David Schneider comments on some “toys” that can be bought to kids that are about 8 years old or so as a soft introduction to the world of robotics. I am not going to claim that my school degrees are thanks to the toys from my childhood, but most of my passion for engineering comes from my Lego toys and, specially, my Lego Technic toys. A quick glimpse on the Lego Technic website made it clear for me that those toys have evolved so much since I was a kid, but their spirit is intact.

I still remember how much I wanted, desired and craved for this, but I never got it. However, I remember owning all these: a big truck, an excavator and a super cool helicopter. I remember that the car I really wanted and never got had a stick-shift that worked. So I spent many hours building a car myself that would have a stick-shift as well. Once I had succeeded, I noticed that the fancy car had a special piece that allowed the stick-shift to work, which made me feel even prouder of my creation.

Anyhow, apparently Lego stuff has become much fancier over the last few years and now there is a product that can allow kids to get a first adventure with robotics.

First released in 2001, the Lego Mindstorms Robotics Invention System got a significant upgrade in 2006, with the introduction of Mindstorms-NXT. Its 577 parts included four different kinds of sensors and three rather sophisticated servomotors. The most recent edition, the Mindstorms-NXT 2.0 Robotics Kit ($240 from Amazon), released in 2009, boosts the overall parts count to 619, contains a slightly different mix of sensors (one ultrasonic range finder, one color sensor, and two contact sensors), and offers such niceties as a built-in Bluetooth radio and the ability to do floating-point calculations.

I’d read about Mindstorms many times, including in this magazine [PDF], but I hadn’t appreciated how well this system was put together. Hats off to the folks at Lego for producing something that works so well at so many levels.

Any child who can piece together Lego bricks should have little trouble assembling the starter robot, a small tracked vehicle described in the kit’s 62-page instruction booklet. The heart of the kit is its computer module, the NXT “brick,” which the starter robot holds at a convenient angle for viewing the LCD screen and operating the four buttons. With just that simple user interface, youngsters can quickly get their creations moving and doing various interesting things.

I really recommend that you read the entire article, since it discusses on other “toys” that are beyond interesting.

I would have loved to have these toys as a kid….

Update: For you guys who were Lego Technic fans as kids, this link brought me so many memories.

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