Lego MindStorms: Lego and MIT

by Jonathan Knudsen

From MIT with love

MIT and Lego

• Lego gives money to MIT to research how children learn.

• MIT gives product ideas to Lego.

• MIT hosted the MindFest conference.

• Key sites include Lego's MindStorms and LUGNet.

MIT and Lego have been in bed for quite a while. The history of this relationship, in many ways, is a road that leads to the MindStorms product line. Lego gives MIT money so they can investigate how children learn, how robots think, and other heavy topics. In return, Lego gets to take ideas developed by MIT and make products out of them. In fact, MindStorms is a borrowed name, originally used in a 1980 book by Seymour Papert titled MindStorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. Papert cofounded MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory back in the 1960s and is now an instrumental figure at the MIT Media Lab. The book is about the creation of LOGO, a computer language for children.

Later work at the Media Lab led directly to the Robotics Invention System. Researchers at MIT have used Legos for mechanical prototyping for many years. A recent project headed up by Fred Martin is the MIT Programmable Brick, which inspired the design of the RCX.

MIT, of course, has its own firmware that they run on the RCX, and its own LOGO-like programming environment. But this software is not publicly available.

In This Column

What is MindStorms?
RCX Programming
• Lego and MIT
Lego Glasnost

The MIT Media Lab hosted an extraordinary event in October 1999, about a year after the release of the Robotics Invention System. The event was MindFest, subtitled "A Gathering of Playful Inventors." Several hundred people attended, including MIT staff, Lego employees, enthusiasts, educators, and kids. The tutorials and panel discussions included everything from "Artistic Machines" and "Virtual Tinkering" to "Young Inventors" and "Robotics in the Classroom." It was a fascinating weekend, and a good chance to see the recreational and educational aspects of Lego robotics.

It's a Net thing

As if a distinguished pedigree from MIT wasn't enough, the MindStorms phenomenon has a heavy Internet element as well.

The Lego's MindStorms web site serves as the official home of Lego robotics on the Web. If you own a Robotics Invention System set, you have an automatic membership at this site. You can use the site to upload robot pictures and programs, and browse through the creations of other fans.

The widely acknowledged center of the Lego online universe is the fan-created Lego Users Group Network (LUGNet). LUGNet is a searchable collection of discussion forums. Every forum is available as a regular NNTP newsgroup, on the Web, or as an e-mail list. There are groups and subgroups for every corner of the Lego universe. If you've got a question, it's probably already been answered here. If not, this is the place to ask.

In lugnet.robotics and its subgroups, for example, you'll find discussions about using a power adapter on the infrared tower, exotic drives like Killough's platform, and the tri-star design, techniques for using the infrared port on the RCX as a proximity detector, and almost anything else you can imagine. Here you'll also find the hackers who reverse engineered the RCX and created NQC, legOS, and pbFORTH.