A lot has changed since 2006. Social networks rule. Smartphones are no longer a luxury for the geek elite. And every kid knows the word "app."
So maybe it’s only natural that each of these ideas worked themselves into Lego Mindstorms EV3, Lego’s first major refresh of the Mindstorms line since 2006. If you aren’t familiar, Mindstorms are Lego’s programmable robotic parts—a brain, motors, and sensors—that interface with their Technic line.
"Children today don’t perceive robots as industrial machines. A robot is something of a character. It has a personality. It could be humanoid or an animal, but certainly something with a mind of its own," technology concept lead Oliver Wallington explains. "People might say 'iPhone—that’s the way Lego fashion should go!' But really, when you build an iPhone into a Lego Technic model, they just clash. We have to complement the models."
So while the Mindstorms kit is intended to fuel infinite creativity, it’ll be marketed with five "character" designs, which were partly inspired from Lego’s conversations with children themselves. One design is a snake, while another is a humanoid, while yet another is a rover-like tank. The idea is to appeal to almost any child’s particular interests, using characters as a gateway into creation.
"The play, look, and feel has been modeled for children," global project lead Camilla Bottke adds. "But the hardware has been made to also embrace adult users."
So Mindstorms walks an interesting line of approachability and depth and youth and maturity. It’s designed very intently to be playable within 20 minutes without anything more than a few nonverbal instructions, what the company calls a "Christmas morning" appeal. It helps that Mindstorms now include IR sensors (allowing simple remote control). Additionally, each Mindstorms block holds the basics to programming—a single setting—that can be activated on the body, while the rest of the options lurk on a computer. So a motor can be set to start and stop, or aimed in a particular direction, right on the brick.
But to delve deeper, to make the motor skid or do other advanced maneuvers, the bricks will need to sync via USB or Bluetooth to a computer. In fact, to appeal to adult engineers, the Intelligent Brick (brain) will even run Linux and support SD storage expansion along with Wi-Fi dongles. It’s "future proofing," we’re told, that’s intended to promote long-term hacking by a global community. Because in the cloud, kids and adults alike will be able to share their programs in an open-source environment, uploading code for others to download into their creations. It’s like Lego’s Github.
Of course, we haven’t even gotten to the iOS and Android support yet. The details of these apps still seem to be in the works, but no doubt they could prove to be even more essential to programming the next wave of Mindstorms than a PC, assuming Lego digs that deep with the UI. One need only look at the success of Atoms Express, an iOS-based Kickstarter project much like Mindstorms, to recognize the potential here.
Mindstorms EV3 will be available in the second half of 2013 for $350.