March 7, 2006 12:05 PM PST

Lego robot builders unite

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Lund said Lego was looking for people with expertise in any or all of three areas. First, the company sought people who demonstrated the ability to "build some great robots." Next, Lego wanted people who showed they would be able to write something significant about the program, be it books, reviews, blogs or training materials about Mindstorms. Finally, Lego was looking for people who could hack Mindstorms and help the company create a third-party programming environment.

For Bill Tinney, a Seattle-area Flash software developer, his ticket into the program was his determination to program Mindstorms NXT robots on Macintosh computers.

"I'm an avid Mac user," Tinney said, "and since (Mindstorms has) not been open to the Mac community before, I think they need to test it out there."

Neither Tinney nor Gray would say exactly what kind of robots they would build as development program members, since each signed a nondisclosure agreement. But the 114 participants in the program will likely be building all manner of bugs, monsters, animals, superheroes and flying beasts.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, Lund was showing off a collection of Mindstorms NXT robots that included a scorpion that would bite fans' hands, a slot-machine robot and robot that could move across a table and sense and pick up a ball.

Lego tried to ensure that the group was nationally diverse, and that each of the three categories of selectees were equally represented, Lund said. But his favorite was someone he'd never have expected to end up in such a program: a 75-year-old University of California at Berkeley professor who applied and said he wanted to use Mindstorms NXT as a teaching tool in his classes. Lund could not wait to admit the man to the program.

"He actually went through the screening," Lund said. "Isn't it amazing?"

One thing that helped Lego ensure that program applicants were serious about their interest was that those chosen will not get free Mindstorms product. While they will get a small discount on what they buy, the real lure, Lund said, is the chance to get involved early and have a real say in what comes next for the toys.

Some of those selected say that's exactly why they're involved.

"I want to look at every aspect of the NXT kit software and hardware that would affect me or my kids in any way, shape or form and merit it for being positive or negative, and see them hopefully be able to incorporate (my suggestions) into future designs?I want to take that (testing) experience and apply it so that they can have a more successful product," said Gray, who is an editor at the Lego enthusiast publication Brick Journal when he's not working for Microsoft.

And, Lund said, that is exactly what will happen.

"This is huge for Lego," Lund said. "The first (thing) we're asking them to do is really bang on the product."

He hopes many of the developer-program members will create attractive and impressive robots and that Lego will be able to showcase them on the Mindstorms NXT Web site when the product officially launches this summer.

"We (would) get them out on our Web site," Lund said, "so that the day we launch the product, it's not just a dead Web site."

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Homeland Security should learn from Lego
It may be stretching things slightly, but I think the Dept. of Homeland Security could learn something from Lego! -- <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://*******.com/d2ebf" target="_newWindow">http://*******.com/d2ebf</a>

W. David Stephenson
Stephenson Strategies
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