Brick by Brick: Modularity and Programmability in MINDSTORMS and Gaming
On February 28, 2008, Swedish programmer and hobbyist Hans Andersson uploaded his video entitled “Tilted Twister” to YouTube, and it has since garnered almost one and a half million views. 1 Visually, the video is rather plain: it is quite low resolution and depicts a tilted, framed triangular structure about the size of a house cat made from LEGO and several wires, located on a wooden ﬂ oor against a simple white backdrop. The scene is motionless for several seconds until a disembodied hand appears in the top left of the frame, holding a jumbled Rubik’s Cube. The hand casually places the Cube into a same-sized square platter at the top of the LEGO structure, and a robotic voice is heard to say “Thank you”. The hand leaves the frame and the scene is motionless again before the self-powered LEGO devices springs to life. With no apparent human intervention, the tilted contraption rotates an arm with an eye-like appendage over the Cube and then proceeds to methodically rotate the frame holding the Cube. The device then begins to move its “eye” back and forth, alternately rotating the Rubik’s Cube, repositioning the Cube in the frame, twisting the Cube’s sections, and occasionally pausing. After less than three minutes of time (some of which is sped up), the LEGO device has solved the Rubik’s Cube, arranging each side into one color, and the LEGO robot speaks once again: “Game over”. The astonishing video is mesmerizing, as watching a Rubik’s Cube be solved by a robot is rather uncanny. But it is also evident that this LEGO device is quite different than the traditional LEGO set through its automation, readily apparent capacity for processing visual data, and intentional manipulation (see Figure 8.1 ). Andersson built this remarkable robot using LEGO’s educational “MINDSTORMS” products, which invite consumers to build robotic devices and automatons which incorporate programmability as a central feature. On his website, Andersson shares the designs for this and other similar robots-which include
those which can solve a Sudoku puzzle using a pen, and a clock which keeps time with a display that rotates LEGO bricks for its digital clock face. 2
As with traditional LEGO sets, the “hardware” of MINDSTORMS sets may be assembled into many conﬁ gurations by attaching blocks and components to one another; these modular elements may include optical sensors such as cameras or motors, which can enable movement and autonomic actions. Furthermore, MINDSTORMS kits include a “Brick” computer which may be programmed by the user to control the motors, sensors, and other such parts. This Brick and its associated electromechanical components are physically built into the hardware model, but operate as a unique interface between programmable software and hardware modules. The lineage of MINDSTORMS can be directly traced through academic and computing research initiatives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as well as to the constructivist educational philosophy of Jean Piaget.