Here is a mini review of two toys Rich has been playing with.
Over the last few weeks, I've had the opportunity to spend some time with a pair of toys. Actually, one is a real toy, while the second is a toy to me, but not to most people. The first that I'm referring to is the Lego Mindstorms NXT kit. The second is a reference design, the RoadRunner, offered by CSR.
The RoadRunner is a kit that helps jump start developers of hands-free systems. Based on the company's BlueCore3-Multimedia device with on-chip DSP and codec, it's aimed at low-cost portable kits that provide the end user with Bluetooth hands-free calling capability in a “plug-in” form factor. Everything that's needed to create a hands-free kit is included.
If I had paid closer attention to the directions (who reads directions anyway), it would have been plug-and-play for me (just like it's supposed to). But one simple e-mail exchange with the CSR tech support team set me straight. Had I been more ambitious (and had more time on my hands), I would have configured it to run in my car, and really put it through the paces. But it worked great sitting on my desk. The Bluetooth connection was simple, and the parties at either end of the line had no problem hearing the conversion.
If this is an application you're considering, think about trying out the RoadRunner. The CSR folks certainly make it simple.
The Lego Mindstorms NXT kit was anything but simple. That's probably because it's designed for kids. Judging from how my own kids think, they tend to not make things more complex than they need to be (like I've been known to do).
When I opened the box, it seemed as if there were thousands of parts inside. I spent many hours assembling my robot, programming him, then putting him though the paces. He moves, he senses, he lights up, and so on. I got quite a kick out of him, as I'm sure most kids would, after having the satisfaction of building and programming the robot.
In the end, it was well worth the time investment. I can see how a grade school student would get hours of joy from this kit. If you're looking to get your child involved in an engineering-like environment, I strongly suggest you check this kit out. It would also make a great class project.
Richard Nass is editor in chief of Embedded Systems Design magazine. He can be reached at .
Kids do love the LEGO Mindstorms NXT. FIRST LEGO League (FLL www.firstlegoleague.org) is a great program for getting middle school aged kids interested in science and technology. In FLL, middle school students use the LEGO Mindstorms NXT to solve missions on a field to earn points in head to head competition. I've coached teams for a couple of years now. Check it out.
I'm a long-time Embedded reader, and correspond occasionally with Jack Ganssle, Jack Crenshaw, Bill Gatliff and others authors in your magazine. My interest in LEGO NXT comes honestly: I wrote pbForth, one of the earliest alternative firmwares for the original LEGO Mindstorms RCX.
I even gave a talk at the Extreme Mindstorms panel at MIT's 199 Mindfest. I was one of the original 4 MUPpets from the LEGO user community that got an advanced look at the NXT during development as written up in Wired. And here's my photo in the article as “Firmware Expert.”
I've written a new replacement firmware for the NXT called pbLua, which is a port of Lua to the NXT. It was fun and really not that hard once I combined parts of three open source projects to make this one.
I used the LEGO firmware, the AT91 USB framework, and of course the Lua source.
It's in flux now, but a new release is coming shortly that supports Bluetooth. It offers a real text based language that is compiled on the brick itself, just add a dumb terminal and you're set to program the NXT the way real engineers do it – with a command line 🙂
Along the way I created a GDB debug stub that uses USB with a bit of help from Bill Gatliff.
Long story short, if you have some editorial requirements for “fun” introductions to deeply embedded systems that engineers can get for their kids, this is a great opportunity.