Few are more excited about Lego’s new Mindstorms sets rolling out next month than Silicon Valley engineers.
Many of them were drawn to the tech sector by the flagship kits that came on the market in 1998, introducing computerised movement to the traditional snap-together toy blocks and allowing the young innovators to build their first robots. Now, 15 years later, those robot geeks are entrepreneurs and designers, and the colourful plastic bricks have an outsized influence in their lives.
Techies tinker at Lego play stations in workplaces. Engineers mentor competitive Lego League teams. Designers use them to mock up larger projects ideas. And executives place Lego creations on their desks alongside family photos.
“Everyone I work with played with them as children. We sit around talking Lego. It’s a shared common experience,” said Travis Schuh, who reaches into his bin of plastic blocks when he needs a quick prototype at the Silicon Valley medical robotic firm where he works.
The new Mindstorms sets, on sale from September 1, are simpler for the younger crowd and more versatile for sophisticated users than two earlier versions. The sets are designed for kids over 10 and make it easy to build basic, remote-controlled robots, including a cobra-like snake that snaps Lego brick fangs. Some shoot balls, others drive along colour-coded lines. But for $349, far more expensive than typical building toys, customers get a much more complex and powerful system.
“There’s actually a lot of engineering that goes into Lego bricks and the systems you can prototype out of them are pretty sophisticated,” says Stanford University engineering professor Christian Gerdes, who uses them in his classroom.
Professional hackers will also find plenty to do with the new Mindstorms, as the open source software uses Linux for the first time, and controller apps are integrated for tablets and mobile phones.
San Francisco-based software engineer Will Gorman is one of those adult users. He has torn apart Mindstorms kits to create a Lego toilet flusher, a Wii-playing robot that bowled a perfect game and a Lego Mars Curiosity Rover. ProtoTank co-founder Adam Ellsworth, whose headquarters are on the third floor of TechShop San Francisco, says, “There is a culture of design in the Silicon Valley, and Lego bricks are how so many of us started.”
“This place is just one big Lego station,” he added, raising his voice above the buzz of laser cutters and 3-D printers. “Taking an idea, a concept, and