Lego has just announced the new version of MINDSTORMS, the fantastic robotics programming package. The new version is called MINDSTORMS NXT. The main idea is for users to be able to build more interesting robots, more easily. A great article in Wired reviews the development process, and explains how the original MINDSTORMS kit has 70% adult users, and 30% young users. Lego hopes to reverse this trend by making a better user interface and programming language.
The old system will not be compatible with the new system, so all of us in the education market need to get ready for new expenses if we want to try the NXT system. From the pictures, the new brick (robot brain) is very elegant. Gone is the big yellow box, and here is the accessory-friendly, sleek new brick (click image for big close up). New and improved sensors include: ultrasonic (for “seeing”), sound, light, touch, rotation (inbuilt in motors). These open the doors to improved robot performance. One of the best new features is Mac version of the software.
The new brick is USB and Bluetooth compatible which may lead to some really neat interactions with devices like Bluetooth headsets, camera-phones and more. Gone is the difficult-to-use infrared tower that has been the bane of so many student and teacher programmers.
I think the idea of an easier to use Lego robotics kit is a valuable one and a dangerous one. Lego is excellent at building step by step instructions on how to build things (see Ikea for the opposite of good instructions). However, programming and computer science are not about following instructions to build products. Computer science is about problem solving, trial and error, debugging. I would rather see Lego build a better debugging interface than build more guides. Students already have ideas of what to build. We just need to enable them to be able to succeed. None of us as teachers are looking to make our students good instruction manual readers. We want them to be inventors. Since I haven’t seen NXT yet, I won’t comment on how well it facilitates this, but I can only hope it does.
Lego announced a new blog, nxtbot.com which will provide news on consumer electronics. So far, the blog only has 3 posts, but it just started. Add to the RSS readers and let’s see what they have to share.
Lego has also has an exciting developers program which will let 100 lucky people test out the new NXT system early. You will then be eligible for a reduced-priced NXT set when it releases. Throw your name in the hat, I already did (deadline: February 5).