This chapter is going to focus on a very brief and quick history of the LEGO Mindstorms timeline. This chapter serves as information and context for the new Mindstorms Robot Inventor Kit 51515. It will provide a backdrop of how we have arrived at this new kit.
It is hard to believe that LEGO has been in the robotics environment for over 20 years. Today the educational and consumer world is saturated with robots. We see them everywhere, from toys to day-to-day life products, and all over the industrial and economic world.
Back in 1998, LEGO released Lego Mindstorms: The Robotics Invention System. There were some other products created by LEGO prior to this kit, but for all intents and purposes, we are going to focus on this first RCX Mindstorms kit, 9719, as the kicking-off point for our quick journey through the robotic systems over time.
The reason we are going to do a quick dive into the incredible history of LEGO Mindstorms is to realize how far technology has progressed and to pave the way for understanding what this new kit is providing us. I think it is easy to overlook how accessible some of this incredible technology has become to help us to learn and bring our ideas to life.
For the sake of brevity, we are only going to focus on the Mindstorms line. Please realize that there are so many other incredible products, such as the WeDo, STEAM Park, Coding Express, and Boost to name a few. There are even robot kits that were designed by LEGO prior to the RCX.
Finally, this chapter is not going to explore all the coding platforms and languages because that can get quite lengthy and complicated. If you are interested in learning more about coding platforms, then please explore the chart maintained by David Lechner and Seshan Brothers as it is the best reference of all that is possible; it can be accessed from the Further reference section at the end of this chapter.
In this chapter, we're going to cover the following main topics:
For this chapter, there are no technical requirements.
If we start several years prior to 1998 and look back to 1982, LEGO had a new product line called Technic (have you heard of it?). A few years into this new line of products, LEGO began to work with Seymour Papert (one of my educational heroes) to create programmable LEGO. Papert even has a book called Mindstorms (ironic?). One of Papert's colleagues, named Mitch Resnick (from MIT Lifelong Kindergarten), who I have had the pleasure of meeting, presented a prototype to LEGO in Billund and things started to take shape.
You'll know this brick as the yellow brick that started a journey unlike any other – a powerful programming device with 32 KB of RAM with no USB (not available to the public until September 1998), no Wi-Fi (cell phones were just emerging with games such as Snake), or anything we would expect today. It used a LEGO IR tower to send code from the computer to the RCX brick. If you still have Windows 98, ME, or XP, you could still boot up and code today.
Cue the fond memories of the gray and orange NXT robotics kit. Heading back in time, I vividly remember hosting my first robotics summer camp for students when I found out I had access to seven of these kits. This was also the time when I first dipped my toe into the FIRST LEGO League:
In 2006, LEGO updated the robot line with the NXT. I am sure many of you remember, recognize, or have fond memories of using the NXT. There were two versions of this kit, retail (8527) and educational (9797). Additionally, the kits had an upgrade to NXT 2.0 (8547). More importantly, the programming interface was LabVIEW, which is what many of us grew to love with the NXT and EV3. It was also with this robotic kit that there started to be a huge list of various programming languages made available by third parties if you did not want to use block-based coding.
In 2009, LEGO upgraded this kit with an NXT 2.0 (8547) that provided some updates with a new color sensor that was available in the retail version of this product. This brick allowed the user to program images and edit sounds. Additionally, it had four buttons to navigate on the brick. What I loved most about this kit was that there was a sound sensor that was provided in the education kit (9797). You could activate the robot based on sound. While this sensor went away in future kits, I find it fascinating that as we explore smart robots in this book, LEGO was ahead of its time as almost all of us now have an Alexa, Siri, or Cortana device that is activated by sound and voice.
In terms of the retail kits, the color sensor found in NXT 2.0 replaced the light sensor found in NXT 1.0 in the retail kit.
We now enter the era of LEGO robotics when almost everyone reading this book spent more hours than they care to admit building, programming, and designing robots using the LEGO EV3. Whether you build as a hobby as a child or Adult Fan of LEGO (AFOL), enter competitions such as FIRST LEGO League, teach in education settings, or simply just love using LEGO to bring ideas to life, we can all agree that the EV3 is a rather robust robotic kit that allows the builder to accomplish just about anything:
Because this kit has been around for a while, and also due to its popularity, there are so many third-party sensors and add-ons available that the sky is truly the limit when it comes to designing ideas.
Just like the NXT, LEGO released two versions of this kit. There was the retail version and the educational version. Again, builders used a version of LabVIEW to program, but recently you could also program this brick in Python to really push its capability. As technology and accessibility have improved, you could also do all the programming online using tools such as MakeCode, providing new pathways for people to get involved in programming.
There were some subtle differences between the two kits, but enough to make it worth mentioning:
Additionally, the education version also had an expansion kit (45560), which provided some new elements not seen before and bonus builds to really help engage students in new ways of building and programming.
The changes and upgrades in elements are interesting to follow as technology continues to change in our world all around us. Perhaps the most important feature to take note of as these kits continued to be upgraded is the fact that while the EV3 had a USB cable and Bluetooth like the NXT, it always allowed for Wi-Fi, bringing more opportunities to builders.
Regardless of the kit that you used, this has been our world. Builders have done some incredible things with these kits that really helped to transform LEGO from a toy to a legit product of engineering and coding marvel.
2020 ended up being a big year for LEGO. This kit was originally slated for release in August 2019, but it did not actually hit the market until January 2020. This is a fascinating kit to explore because it marked a shift to a new era of STEM, robotics, and marketing for the LEGO audience:
This kit is a LEGO Education product, but it is available on the main LEGO site. We see a transition away from making two kits, one retail and one education. Instead, it is available to all, which is a smart move as the boundaries of learning have become so intertwined, with virtual learning, homeschool, after-school events, and regular school.
This kit is designed for an upper elementary and middle school audience (grades 6–8). The builder will notice some changes from previous kits. First, the color scheme is brighter and more alive compared to the whites, grays, and blacks of the previous kits. There are a host of new elements that make building so much nicer.
Another big change is the move away from LabVIEW to a Scratch-based programming interface. Depending on who you are and your previous experience using LabVIEW, you'll either love or dislike this move. However, moving forward, having all the robot kits using one interface will make the product line much nicer to work with and interact with various kits.
One big difference between this kit and previous kits is the connectors. The connectors are a much thinner wire. While this will help with programming and building, it does mean that all of our previous sensors and motors are not compatible with these new kits. By the time this book is published, I am sure a third-party company will have devised an adapter, but in the meantime, we will have to use the new elements and only use the wires provided instead of finding the length that we desire.
The LEGO SPIKE Prime kit also has an expansion kit (45680) that contains over 600 more elements to build new projects and robots and to help make the robot competitive in events such as FLL.
Finally, SPIKE Prime contains many lessons, build guides, and more for parents and teachers to get started with their students/children with building on the LEGO Education website as well as in the software. This has always been a strong point of LEGO products, providing support and resources to go along with an amazing product. Even adults will find these useful to get used to the new coding interface that is Scratch-based versus LabVIEW.
It should also be noted that the LEGO SPIKE Prime is not technically in the official Mindstorms progression of robotic kits by LEGO, but it is included as it is so close to the new Inventor Kit and marks a shift in the new brick structure for LEGO. As we explore in Chapter 2, Getting Started and Understanding the Robot Inventor Kit, you will see many similarities between the SPIKE Prime and Robot Inventor, which is why this kit is included in this history of Mindstorms.
With this new design of the brick, you can program the LED matrix on the Intelligent Hub. It is worth noting that in previous models of the bricks, you could program the screen with graphics, words, and data. It is referred to as programmable LED due to the fact that the design approach to the screen has changed, using a 4x5 LED array.
First, just to be clear, this is the kit that is designed to be the new robot in the Mindstorms product line. The SPIKE Prime is designed for a specific age and this kit is the new version of the Mindstorms. You will notice on the LEGO site that EV3 is now marked as retiring soon.
There are many similar features that compare to the SPIKE Prime. First, the hub is the same, with a rechargeable hub. The hub works with an app to allow Bluetooth programming and building. The difference between the brick hubs is simply the color scheme. The Robot Inventor brick has a teal color while the SPIKE Prime has a yellow color:
We will explore in greater detail the new parts, elements, coding, platforms, and more in the next chapter, where we will take a deeper dive into the contents of the kit. That is the reason you are reading this book, so be prepared to learn about the kit through hands-on experience.
As we took a trip down memory lane, we witnessed how LEGO has evolved their products as technology, costs, and opportunities present themselves. It is crazy to think that this work has been going on since the 90s. Depending on your experience and when you first entered the Mindstorms world, we all have a favorite product. Whether you are a die-hard NXT fan, still hanging on to the glory of EV3, or excited about the new possibilities of the Robot Inventor Kit, we are fortunate to have such cool robotics to bring the ideas in our minds to life.
Change is always happening and sometimes we like change and sometimes we don't. As our world changes daily, so do the opportunities we have to build, program, and play. This latest kit by LEGO is going to provide us with so many wonderful opportunities to bring the ideas in our heads into the real world. Let's take a closer look at the new kit and explore the new elements included in the kit, along with some of the new programming features, so we can begin to understand the platform to design some smart robots.
In the next chapter, we will dive into the new parts, elements, coding apps, and more that come with the Mindstorms Robot Inventor Kit.