Mindstorms Is Different

Brian Davis asked, at The NXT STEP blog, Should LEGO make sure you can build everything? Go read his post (and the other comments); my summary will not do it justice. In brief, he asks, “Lego Mindstorm’s owners are upset that the new NXT set does not let them build the same things they could with the first set. No one gets upset that when you buy one Star Wars set, you can’t (necessarily) build something that requires a different set. Is Mindstorms somehow different from other LEGO kits?”

Here are my thoughts on the matter:

Mindstorms is different, especially the NXT. (As a minor point, when you buy an RCX, even an adult can tell that it is LEGO, and can use it with any existing LEGO they have; with the NXT, people say, “That’s made out of LEGO?”)

When you buy a Star Wars set, you buy 1) the ability to build the model(s) on the box, and 2) parts, with which you can build anything you can imagine.

When you buy a Mindstorms set, you buy 1) a robotics invention system — a versatile toolkit for building robots. The models on the box show that you can do something with it, but you don’t buy the kit to build them — you build them to understand how to use the kit. The set is not purchased for parts, but because the parts do something. It does whatever you can think of to make it do.

And herein lies a problem. Using LEGO Mindstorms is really, really hard! Even when you can decide what you want to make, putting the pieces together in such a fashion as to bring the idea to fruition is difficult. But that’s only half the challenge. Now you need to make it do something. Unfortunately, the target audience doesn’t know how to program, and their parents aren’t prepared to help. [And then, if you know how to make your program, you have to fight against buggy software. Ugh!]

Symour Papert, author of “Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas” spoke of how, if you want to learn French, you should go to France. If you want to learn math, you should visit ‘Mathland’ [refering to the idea of using computational power to provide engaging environments in which it is natural to pick up new concepts and apply them.]

In the same way that a language is a toolkit of words, grammar, and syntax that enables communication, the NXT set is a toolkit of bricks, construction techniques, and programming that allow you to create robots. Languages drift over time; Old Slavic becomes Russian and Ukranian. Here we have a sudden drift of the parts in the NXT set, and a budding roboticist, like a toddler learning to speak, does not know enough of his own set (or language) to be able to benefit from instruction written for a different set — it might as well be in a different language. It has been said that the US and Britain are “two nations separated by a common language”. The same can now be said of owners of the different NXT sets.

Back to ‘Math Land’ — the doors to ‘NXT Land’ have been opened wide. Authors and netizens have drawn maps that guide the way through the territories (or ‘exploration space’) of what can be done with the set. Then LEGO, instead of enlarging the borders of the land, changes them, rendering whole continents out of bounds to new roboticists (while, admittedly, creating new terriries that the guides are busy mapping.) It is frustrating, as a robotics teacher, that my students can not do the same things with their toolkit that I can with mine, and that the resources that have been invaluable to me are valueless to them. They don’t have the parts, they aren’t about to figure out how to use BrickLink (and don’t have a credit card anyways), and their parents, after fessing up $350 for a robotics kit, aren’t about to spend an additional $100 for, say, the NXT Educational Resource kit.

One more example: Regular LEGO sets are like computer applications. You crunch data in your spreadsheet, draw a picture in your artwork program, and use the results of both in your word processor, which you can then e-mail to someone or print off. The tools all work together, and if you have more tools, you can do more things. In contrast, the Mindstorms set is the platform — a computer, an operating system, and a suite of built-in applications (and a rich home for third party applications). Now, the computer platform is changing all the time, but great effort is taken to maintain backwards compatability, so that you can use different computers and still perform all the tasks that you expect to be able to do. What LEGO has done is broken backwards compatability—imagine what would’ve happened if they’d changed the size and spacing of the holes through the bricks—and the platform isn’t nearly as useful as it would’ve been if it could still do — out of the box — everything that it did for someone who bought it two years earlier.

Mindstorms is more than just a construction set; it is a toolkit for building robots. While you can battle the Dark Side with any number of Star Wars sets, you cannot apply hands-on learning from a master craftsman when you are missing a tool he uses.

Posted by Clinton Blackmore - Tuesday February 9, 2010.
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  1. Excellent post! Your territory and borders analogy is great— I think that illustrates perfectly the difference between the two sets.

    However, my attitude towards the discrepancy between NXT 1.0 and 2.0 has been one of indifference. Perhaps it’s arrogance? But I feel that improvisation and the overcoming of obstacles is critical to the “maker ethos”. (This is something that I have instilled in my son— adapt and overcome.)

    Granted, I’m a graphic designer and artist, not an engineer, so perhaps my approach to the act of building a robot is fundamentally different.

    Anyway— you make some very good points, very clearly.

    — Brian Johnson · Feb 19, 12:15 PM · #

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