Lego MindStorms: Lego Glasnost

by Jonathan Knudsen

Lego Glasnost

Lego Glasnost

• Lego's been shipping plastic bricks for 50 years. It took them a few months to figure out the personality of their new, programmer consumer.

• Lego's been moving to gradually accept user innovations like NCQ.

• After an initial chilliness toward the open source attitude of the hackers who reverse-engineered some RCX code, Lego now promises to listen to and work with its new customers.

It would be easy to congratulate Lego on its brilliant product strategy. The truth is, however, that like many brilliant products, this one happened almost by accident. The Robotics Invention System was created by a renegade group, with a high-ranking champion, within the Lego company.

If you take a look at the history of Lego, you can appreciate what an upheaval MindStorms represents. Lego has been molding plastic for the last 50 years. The Robotics Invention System, on the other hand, involves circuit design, embedded systems programming, and desktop application programming. All of these are pretty crazy fields for a plastics company to jump into.

But jump they did, and the results are stunning. Lego managed to transfer its high quality in plastic molding into high-quality technology. Lego has been a slow-moving, conservative company for many years. Now, like it or not, it is also a high-tech company.

Lego is trying to respond to the unexpected success of the Robotics Invention System. It is also trying to respond to the unexpected dedication of RCX hackers who reverse engineered important parts of the RCX within a few weeks of its release. Many Lego fans, particularly MindStorms fans, are adults—a group that has never been part of Lego's target audience. So far, Lego's response in the aftermath of MindStorms consists of three important steps:

  1. In November 1999, the official MindStorms web site recognized NQC source files as a valid file type for uploading to member's project areas. This was an implicit endorsement of NQC as a valid RCX development environment, and an important recognition of the online community.
  2. Later that month, Lego published juicy details of the internal workings of the Scout, the robot brain from the Robotics Discovery Set.
  3. In December 1999, a vice president from Lego made an unprecedented appearance at LUGNet, promising a new "direct-to-you communications and commerce channel." "We are listening," he said—encouraging words indeed.

Looking forward

In This Column

What is MindStorms?
RCX Programming
Lego and MIT
• Lego Glasnost

It's been a wild ride for the last 18 months or so. Lego is running to catch up. Meanwhile, people all over the world are having a blast building and programming robots.

In the months to come, I'll guide you on a tour of the most important landmarks in the Lego robot universe. The contents of these articles are, to some degree, up to you. If you have ideas, I'd love to hear about them. I will introduce NQC programming and talk about the curious problem of moving a robot in a straight line.