The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has been in full swing in Las Vegas for the last few days, and while there’s been a lot of cool gadget news and product announcements, there hasn’t been much worth mentioning here until today. To the surprise of many people, myself included, Lego announced this morning that the next version of their Mindstorms robotics kit, NXT, would be available for purchase in August of 2006. While many had written the platform off after the 2.0 version released in 2001, Lego has actually been undertaking a super-secret development campaign in conjunction with a select handful of Mindstorm enthusiasts for more than a year and a half. The fruits of this endeavor, NXT, will not be an upgrade to 2.0, but rather is a complete overhaul of the entire kit from the building blocks to the microprocessor.
Controlling the new system will be the NXT brick, a 32-bit microprocessor that can be programmed using a PC or a Mac, marking the first time Lego has offered Apple-compatibility out of the box. The programming environment for the NXT is all new as well. Lego enlisted Texas-based National Instruments to develop the programming software based on its popular graphical development package LabVIEW. In an age marred by the DMCA and other intellectual property litigation, Lego made the unorthodox, but very respectable and ultimately wise, decision to promote hacking of the original Mindstorms RCX controller, going so far as to include a hacking clause in the software license. Within weeks the microcontroller had been reverse engineered and new firmware and programming tools for other languages sprung up immediately, driving interest in the platform among adults who, while not the original product target, continue to make up the largest portion of the Mindstorm’s population to this day. Most expect similar third party tools for NXT to supplement the simpler, and sometimes more limited, drag and drop graphical programming offered by LabVIEW.
There are many other improvements to the kit as well. Several new sensors will be available including an ultrasonic sensor allowing robots to “see,” a sound sensor which will enable robots to react to sound commands, a light sensor that will detect both color and intensity, and an improved touch sensor. Lego has also dropped the traditional bricks used in 2.0 and earlier in favor of the stud-less, Technic bricks. Although there will be almost 200 less bricks in the kit than in 2.0, designers will find they are able to create more authentic-looking and robust robots with the Technic bricks which were designed for building mechanical projects in the first place. The kit will include 3 interactive servo motors with inbuilt rotation sensors which will offer more precision for speed control alignment. Finally, the IR interface has been replaced by Bluetooth which will open the door to a whole new world of controller options including computers, PDAs, and cellphones.
Mindstorms NXT will be available at most toy and discount merchandise retailers, select consumer electronics retailers or online in August of 2006. The suggested retail price is $249.99 USD.