There's nothing unique about loving Lego. Millions of people wax nostalgic when they see those colourful bricks. Millions more never stopped building. I've always been a bit in between. I like zoning out by putting stuff together so, every couple of years, I'll buy a Lego set and build it. But then what? Put it on my shelf? Thanks to the new Lego Boost Creative Toolbox, there's another possibility. Turning Lego creations into programmable robots makes them fun (and functional) in an amazing new way.
All photos: Adam Clark Estes
AU Editor's Note: The Lego Boost launches across Australia in all major retailers on the 1st of October 2017 and is priced at AUD$249.99. -- Cam
Lego Boost is designed for kids. With a suggested age range of seven to 12, the brick-based robots are relatively easy to build, and the tablet-based drag-and-drop coding system is as straightforward as, well, building a Lego set on a screen. The corresponding Lego Boost app is also gamified so that you have to complete simple tasks before unlocking more challenging ones. The entire concept, the company told me, is meant as a springboard for kids to get some basic training for the adult-centric Lego Minecraft robotics system. Yet Lego Boost is fun for grown ups, too.
The secret, I learned after hours of building and coding, lies in the limitless creativity that Lego Boost offers for $US160. The box comes with 847 pieces, enough to build, one at a time, five specific robots: a cat, a guitar, a forklift, a Johnny Number 5 lookalike (pictured above), and an automated brick-building machine that Lego likens to a 3D printer for Lego.
For building, there's a mix of regular Lego bricks and Lego Technic elements, the more advanced line of Lego pieces that enable movement through pins, beams, and gears instead of simply bricks. There's also brain of the bot: The Boost Hub. It connects to the tablet via Bluetooth and includes a simple motor, an accelerometer, as well a sensor that detects motion, proximity, and colour.
What's in the box?
For constructing the slightly complex creations, Lego did away with paper building instructions and employed tablet-based "tutorials." Unlike a traditional Lego set which comes with a paper booklet of steps that guide you from a pile of bricks to a finished creation, the Boost tutorials use on-screen instructions that work towards the complete construction of a robot in stages. Each robot build comes with three main parts, the first of which is the basic assembly while the second and third are fun modifications. Within those three sections, there are three separate tutorials that enable you to test the robotic functions as you build the creation.
Each tab represents a level with different things to build. The toolbox takes you straight to the coding sandbox.
After following each step of the tutorials and putting bricks together, the app takes you to a coding sandbox, where you learn how to move blocks of code around and make the robot move. For instance, you begin building the Johnny Number 5 by first building his expressive face out of bricks and installing the motor. When the face is complete, you arrange the blocks of code in order to make his face move. Then, you build the arms and make those move, finally, in the third stage, you build his tank treads which let him move around the room.
All this might sound complicated, but trust me, it's not. The Lego Boost app guides you through even the smallest steps of building a robot and the drag-and-drop code blocks couldn't be easier to understand.
The blocks at the bottom amount to chunks of code.
However, the need for a tablet? Sucks. It would be one thing if Lego Boost worked with smartphones, but for now, it doesn't. Lego told me that it arrived at the tablet-only decision because of screen size. "With a tablet, the building instructions are easier to view and there is more space for exploring coding sequences," a Lego spokesperson said in an email.
On top of that, the notion that the tutorials (read: build instructions) are only in the app makes the building process more frustrating than it needs to be. You have to tap the tablet every time you complete a step and even that simple motion gets old. You can also only see the tutorials as you build, so there's no skipping ahead or building that pirate cat robot all at once.
Guess which house pet is built out of Lego.
Lego might hold your hand with the Boost app, but I do wonder how challenging these robots would be for a young kid. Most of the five Boost creations -- the Johnny Number 5 robot, the forklift, the guitar -- were easy enough to build. Building others -- the cat and the automated production line thing -- were frustrating at times. God knows what a seven-year-old would do after spending hours assembling the production machine thing only to find out that it can't actually produce anything. I never got the damn thing to work properly, and I spent an entire Saturday working on it.
Before completing my first build, the Johnny Number 5, it was extremely clear that one of the coolest features of the Boost set would be the ability to break away from the cookie-cutter creations and do something crazy with the pieces. As soon as I realised this novel type of Lego set could move and react to its surroundings, I started wondering how I could attach the treads to my Ecto-1 Lego set and turn it into a remote-controlled Ghostbusters car. Maybe I'd even use the sensor as an obstacle avoidance system. Maybe.
The forklift creations is one of the easiest to build and one of the most fun to use as a robot.
The Lego Boost system amounts to a robotics kit for beginners, whether that beginner is a grown up or a kid. While I had a great time exploring the different creations as an adult, I think the appeal for kids is tremendous. Like Lego in general, Lego Boost is essentially a toy of infinite configurations, one that includes a very exciting element: robots. If building anything you want with bricks is a three dimensional experience, Lego Boost is four dimensional with the limitless possibilities of coding and robotics offering an endless amount of fun.
This system is much more than a toy, but it is not cheap. You drop $US160 for the box of bricks and gadgets, and then you'll need a tablet to make everything work. Yet whether you're a grown up looking to build your own robot or a parent hoping to get your kid into coding, there's enough in this box to construct an endless number of creations. Lego Boost has its faults as a tablet-only toy, but it's also fun and challenging for kids and adults alike.
The guitar is a surprisingly functional electronic instrument.
- Building robots with Lego is awesome at any age
- $US160 is pricey for a Lego set, though decent for a robot set
- Using a tablet is limiting and sometimes annoying
- Limitless possibilities for robot-building is most exciting!