3D Printed Lego Action Figure Rig

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Anyone that’s a fan of animated Japanese robots has probably dreamed of building one. After (hopefully quickly) realizing that this just wasn’t going to happen, making a model might have been a better option. For those of us that don’t have the patience or steady hand to paint a plastic model, Legos might seem like a good robot-building option.

Unfortunately, Legos don’t normally lend themselves well to building a humanoid Mecha robot. If, however, you are able 3D Print a frame for the pieces to fit on, things become a lot simpler, as shown in the video below. You can download the files for these prints from Thingiverse, or directly from the creator, Hero Design Studio.

According to the io9 article where this was originally seen, these models stand at an impressive 11 inches tall, and are ready to be posed however you like.

Certainly one would need a lot of skill and a huge number of Lego bricks to make a decent looking suit like the “Snow Fox” in the video. I have a feeling that if I tried this, it would end up looking more like an exploded gray castle. On the other hand, why would it have to look like a “Mecha?” Using this frame, your creature could be anything you like, as long as it’s vaguely humanoid!


Barn Door tracker built with Lego Technic for Entry-Level Astrophotography

Brian Carter’s Barn Door Tracker was designed primarily with Lego parts

Brian Carter’s Barn Door Tracker was designed primarily with Lego parts

Ever wonder how photographers grab those awesome time-lapse images of the night sky? Some use a device known as a Barn Door tracker (AKA Haig or Scotch mount), which cancels out the diurnal motion of the Earth (fancy term for compensating for the Earth’s rotation). Most barn door trackers are made using two pieces of wood to form a hinge, with the bottom piece used to mount on a tripod and the top for mounting the camera on, which is aligned with the celestial pole.

The boards are driven together or apart at a constant rate to compensate for the Earth’s rotation. Wood is surely functional but using Legos for a barn door tracker is better, which is what Brian Carter did when designing his camera platform. Brian designed his Barn Door Tracker using unmodified beams and axels from a Lego Technic set to form the device’s platforms. The device features a hand crank to articulate the two platforms, which can also be outfitted with a motorized version Brian designed using a Lego Mindstorms EV3 brick and motor that turns a series of gears. See more of Brian Carter’s creation at his notebook.

Lego’s EV3 brick powers Brian’s motorized crank

Lego’s EV3 brick powers Brian’s motorized crank


AT-AT with Custom 3D Printed Lego Technic Pieces

Taran Van Hemert’s AT-AT constructed with custom 3D printed Legos

Taran Van Hemert’s AT-AT constructed with custom 3D printed Legos

Legos and Star Wars went hand in hand for kids back in the 70’s and still go together to this day for kids and adults alike. What could be better than building with Lego while re-watching Star Wars? How about building a motorized AT-AT made with 3D printed Lego, which is what Taran Van Hemert did when designing his Imperial Walker.

Taran’s initial design was based on Lego’s Dark Side Developer Kit but he expanded on it using parts from several different kits to suit his needs. His Imperial Walker features a total of four separate motors with one powering the legs, one for shooting rubber bands, another for steering the legs and one to pivot the head up and down for aiming. The AT-AT functions using a remote control to pilot the giant mech, actuate the head and for firing Imperial lasers (in this case red rubber bands). Because there were no pieces that existed in those Lego Technic sets, Taran had to build some of his own.

He designed different sized gears and studded beams using Sketchup and had Shapeways print them out using different colored nylon filament. Taran’s goal is to create enough demand for the 3D printed parts that Lego will take notice and produce the pieces themselves because even though the printed pieces are good, they can’t stack-up to the real thing. See more at his site.

Taran’s 3D printed pieces certainly look great but can’t match the real thing - injection molded LEGOs.

Taran’s 3D printed pieces certainly look great but can’t match the real thing – injection molded LEGOs.

 


LEGO Print Making at Maker Faire Orlando

I don’t play with toys. I just print with them. Chris Ware

Chris WareChris Ware, of cWare Studios,  is a graphic designer, print maker and artist from Central Florida.  At Maker Faire Orlando, he’ll be hosting a Maker exhibit focused on LEGO Print Making, lego printingwhich was selected as an Educators Pick  at the event.

On his website, Ware says, “I use LEGOs to print images of toys. The series focuses on how technology is becoming more of a reality than the tangible world. I am intrigued by how technology effects the developmental process and where this may lead us as a society but perhaps I am just “old-fashioned” in that I still prefer three-dimensional.”

We asked Ware to tell us more about his process.

printing with legos“I start with a drawing and gouache and transfer it into Illustrator, ” he explained. “In Illustrator I begin modifying the drawing into a grid that can be used. Once I have a satisfactory digital image I begin working on the plates creating one for each color I plan on using. Originally, I was mixing each color but it was too time consuming since I was hand inking each substrate. I recently switched to using limited colors (red, blue, yellow, green and black) mixed with a transparent base. As I print the individual plates the colors “stack” creating new ones.”skeletor

Ware uses a small etching press, which he’ll have on hand at Maker Faire Orlando, along with characters in the pre-print stage from his “Digital Masters” series, with Beastman, Merman and Trapjaw as a demo of the process. You can see some of the process and images on Instagram.

“I will bring Skeletor and Beastman prints and will be hanging the new prints as they are completed.”

Chris Ware will be playing with LEGOS in a whole new way at Maker Faire Orlando, where he’ll be one of many artists September 13 & 14, who will be making it amazing all weekend long.


Robot uses Legos to build new space elevator

Hknssn’s Lego Space Elevator could theoretically stack Legos all the way into space

Hknssn’s Lego Space Elevator could theoretically stack Legos all the way into space

Space agencies from all over the globe have been looking for ways to build an elevator that can bring people and materials into space, however it seems to be a technical nightmare for engineers to actually build. Perhaps they should just leave it to robots, such as Hknssn’s robotic Lego Space Elevator. His robot takes premade Lego modules and stacks them atop of one another, which could theoretically reach into space given enough time. The robot features 4 NXT servomotors, 8 EV3 servomotors, 8 touch sensors and a color sensor to stack the interlocking modules together on a conveyor-like platform.

While it can constantly stack the modules, it requires humans to build and feed those modules to the robot. By the time the elevator reaches space however, we most likely would have interstellar ships and have evolved into some kind of advanced life forms, as it would take 7,432 years to build the elevator! Yep, the robot has a build speed of roughly 0.2-inches per-second and would have to tower above 62 miles high to reach into space. A LEGO Tower of Babel play set on the way?

(3) They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. (4) Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens…  

-Genesis 11:3-4


A game controller that’s mondo customizable with Lego and Android

Strange Meadowlark’s Lego/Arduino Game Controller: because one size does not fit all.

Strange Meadowlark’s Lego/Arduino Game Controller: because one size does not fit all.

Everybody has their own personal preferences when it comes to gaming controllers. Some prefer certain button layouts while others prefer different contours, and some shun them all together in favor of a mouse and keyboard. Suffice it to say, trying to find the ‘perfect’ controller can be a pain, unless you have the skills to build your own like maker ‘Strange Meadowlark’. His “Lego/Arduino Game Controller” name pretty much describes exactly what went into the design.

lego controller 2

It uses Lego boat hulls for the grips and smooth pieces as a foundation for breadboard platform (stuck to the Legos using sticky-tack). He found that the Arduino Uno R3 slides perfectly between 1 X 2 grate-plates, so no special mock-up was needed. For the top buttons, Strange used simple tactile switches and harvested buttons from an old Microsoft mouse. The buttons were connected to the Arduino and breadboard using old floppy drive ribbon cables held in place with more sticky-tack for a neater look.

lego controller 3

Strange used specialized firmware and a short script he wrote to trick the computer into thinking it’s a keyboard and the keys can be mapped as such (i.e. WSAD for movement). It may not look pretty,  but it is one of the more customizable controllers out there. Those who want to create their own can head over to Strange’s project blog. Where all the source code sits… worth a look just for that.

Plus you can attach any of you Lego Mini-fig friends to game with you… that won me over!


LeJOS, the Java Operating System for Legos, Releases EV3 Beta

Aswin Bouwmeester's holonomic Mindstorms robot, programmed with LeJOS.

Aswin Bouwmeester’s holonomic Mindstorms robot, programmed with LeJOS.

Today, the team behind LeJOS — the Java operating system for Legos — released a beta edition of their software for Mindstorms EV3.

LeJOS has been around since 2000, when Jose Solozano first built the open-source Java-based software for Mindstorms RCX; it’s one of several software replacement systems for Mindstorms, which try to take advantage of more powerful programming languages to enable users to take their projects in different and more advanced directions.

“It doesn’t run the Lego virtual machine, the Lego software. Instead, it runs the standard Oracle virtual machine,” says Lawrie Griffiths, one of the lead LeJOS developers of EV3. “We’ve taken what Lego produced and improved the kernel access, removed their software and replaced it with Oracle’s Java virtual machine, and improved all the networking access.” That is, LeJOS plays nice with more wi-fi dongles, Bluetooth, and even other robotics operating systems.

The EV3 edition of LeJOS is the first to take advantage of Lego’s increasingly open-source programmable bricks; prior versions had to be reverse engineered to work with the bricks. Chief among LeJOS’ advantages, says Griffiths, is better motor control; it’s easier to keep speed and acceleration constant, and achieve better accuracy and precision.

But it’s also important, he says, that it plays well with other systems. It communicates easily with devices, like phones and GPS units, as well as sensors, like gyroscopes. That’s partly what enabled Andy Shaw, another developer who was the first to work on LeJOS for EV3, to build his EV3 motorbike; it steers by tipping slightly, and then correcting itself. “To do that you need fast processing of the gyro sensor and good motor control,” says Griffiths.

Ultimately, LeJOS is about allowing programmers — at least those who know Java — to go beyond what Lego Mindstorms are typically capable of. “Other languages were very popular on the NXT,” says Griffiths. “What Lego provides is a visual programing system, a graphical programming system. That’s very good to get started with, but you soon find that it’s very limited, it’s very slow work … [LeJOS is] much quicker to write programs. You can write bigger programs easily, you can write better structured programs, you can have teams of people working on programs.”

Though LeJOS has been available in alpha since EV3 came out in September, the beta version includes a Windows installer alongside Linux and Mac OSX, as well as a plugin for the Eclipse integrated development environment. It’s also the first time LeJOS has worked directly with Oracle, which seems keen to have its Java language used in the burgeoning internet of things. The next issue of LeJOS will feature Java 8, says Griffiths.

“One of the real advantages of our stuff is we’ve got this big open source project, and people come and contribute all sorts of interesting stuff to the project,” says Griffiths.


Mentoring FIRST Lego League

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Hi, I’m Joe Meno, editor at BrickJournal Magazine, a print and online publication devoted to the Lego fan community. I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of things that originally were part of my hobby, but have now become part of my job. I’ve designed sets for fan events — as well as lead them — and helped the Lego Group design sets. And through all of these great projects, I’ve been documenting them in the magazine with photo features, interviews, and articles. One of the ongoing things that I haven’t presented enough in the magazine, though is something I do now at Ballentine Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina. I assist the school’s FIRST Lego League program.

DSC01078 The team I worked with last year. This year, they went to a middle school and changed their name from Burning Bricks.

FIRST Lego League (FLL) is an international competition that was started by inventor Dean Kamen more than a decade ago. FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, and is an organization that hosts robotics-based competitions for students from elementary to high schools. FIRST Lego League is a program for middle schoolers that includes Mindstorms robot building and programming and also a presentation of a student-created solution to a problem that is derived from the annual FLL theme.

This sounds very dry, and somewhat boring. However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. I discovered this the first year I was exposed, at FIRST Lego League World Festival in Atlanta. (World Festival moved to St. Louis three years ago.) Kamen meant for FIRST to be a place where science and technology were regarded as high as sports programs in schools, and World Festival is the Super Bowl of school robotics. Teams from around the world compete with NXT and EV3 robots and projects to be the Grand Champion, and the Georgia Dome was the competition field. Winning teams start small, though, and that’s where I participate.

My job — if you want to call it that — is the mentor for Lego and Mindstorms building. I’m the resident expert on Lego building, since I am an avid builder and have had some experience with Mindstorms programming. I also help with programming and troubleshooting the student-built robots by helping the students analyze and modify their models. My main efforts begin in September and are usually completed by November, but in that short period of time I teach, demonstrate, and build for a growing number of teams.

Here’s a look at how a typical season works out for the program:

  • April (usually the third weekend): World Festival, with hints dropped about the theme for next season’s challenge.
  • July: Delivery of game boards, the playing field for the robot and associated models.
  • August (end of month): Announcement of challenge and robot games
  • September : Initial assembly and project proposals drafted up by teams
  • October – March: Competitions begin on local, regional and state levels.

I start assisting the classes after teams are set up by introducing them to the Mindstorms system. I usually show a demonstration robot (a remote control robot) and explain how it works, then start teaching the students how to build an introductory robot. What’s impressive is how the kids pick up building — for them, it’s a toy they may or may not have worked with before, but it’s still a toy. The counterpoint is that since it’s a toy, it can be distracting. But for the most part, robot training is challenging and fun. I become an advisor at this point, so while they are building, I am nudging them to try different attachments to see what happens.

By this time, the game field will have been assembled and set up by the teams, so it’s a team-building exercise. This allows them to take a look at the field and start thinking about what their robots need to do. Their coaches also start looking at the field and also the theme to help the teams on their projects. The projects are done outside of class, with research and writing happening as a team effort.

SONY DSC Burning Bricks at a competition. In the background are the team’s parents.

At school, the teams work on different parts of the robot – there are usually a builder, a programmer, and maybe some specialists for different parts of the robot challenge. Programming is usually the next challenge to work on, and it’s probably the hardest part of the construction. Building is easy, since the result is pretty immediate and gratifying. Programming requires perseverance. I have to help keep the team focused on testing and improving the robot. Sometimes that means I push them to analyze a programming bug, and sometimes it means that they build an accessory. Sometimes, though, it means removing an idea and starting over. My job then is to keep things going in a positive direction.

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p>Outside of school, the team is working on their project, which is self-defined. With the theme already determined, teams find a solution to a problem that is theme related. For example, for a theme related to the aging population and the challenges they face, teams may come up with a idea for a cookie that is nutritious for seniors, or create a tablet app for answering the door. The teams select and — with their parents’ help — research and create a presentation given before FIRST judges.

I tend to call this part “the Science Fair component,” but that’s a very broad and inaccurate description. For one thing, an FLL project is usually much more detailed in research, with teams talking to adult experts for information and ideas. The project is, in addition, a product design, and their presentation is their marketing meeting. Presentations are as creative as the teams, who use songs, game shows, and news programs as inspiration to show their ideas to the judges — who quiz the students on aspects of their project. It’s like making a group audition where everyone knows enough to improvise the same answer.

Through all of these facets of the competition, there is another aspect that is being taught: Gracious Professionalism. This is a combination of good sportsmanship and teamwork. You could also call it compassionate sportsmanship. While one may not notice it at a local competition where most teams know each other, it’s very obvious at World Festival, when a team offers not only to help another that dropped their robot, but offers their parts to rebuild. It’s everyone helping everyone else to do their best. At the school I am at, there is another volunteer that teaches these core values through team-building exercises and activities.

With all of this going on, one would think that this is frantic and hard on the students — and for the first weeks, it is, as the kids learn about building and programming. The Mindstorms robotics system takes a little work on the part of the students, but something wonderful happens once they start building, and I get to watch.

I act as a facilitator and trainer, so I show building techniques and examples of solutions to various building challenges the students face. It takes a week before they start understanding building, and it’s a little like watching a baby take her first steps: Initially nervous, she begins to shape a model, and before long, a robot is completed. With that first milestone, there are still questions to be asked, and I take a look at the model. The first smiles from the kids start coming out about this time, as they check and test the structure. They see the results of their work in an immediate way, and they get to see if they built correctly. Seeing such immediate results gives the kids reason to vest themselves in the work, and they actually work harder.

The real magic happens when they program the robot. When I started programming Mindstorms robots, I was very inexperienced with the language they used, which is based on LabView, a language developed by National Instruments. Programming blocks are placed in a sequence to make a robot run. Making a robot is easy; programming is not. It’s a second type of building that has a different result. I have gotten better, especially with the EV3 programming language, which is a easier version of The NXT language.

DSC00962Lego Lightning (formerly Burning Bricks) at a local tournament.

For the students it’s a challenge. While I explain it as assigning commands to a really unintelligent dog, much of what I say doesn’t sink in until a simple program is made and run. The students light up when the robot moves and follows their program. For them, it’s a first step into a new world that they are now excited to explore. I step back and let the teams build on their own now, as the motivation is now coming from the kids – they was to build and program the best robot they can.

For the next few weeks, the teams build and test and adjust their robots, and work on their projects. I don’t do much during this time, except for fielding questions and offering suggestions. However, the teams have now become vested in their work, so the encouragement is internal. The teachers, mentors, and I do not have to push the teams at this point — the kids and their parents are now working together.

Team practices for the robot become regular occurrences and team building continues after school, leading up to the first competition. The school I volunteer at hosts its own competition to give the teams an opportunity to compete before they go to regional competitions. This also showcases FLL to the upcoming classes. The judges are all volunteers, and I usually end up recusing myself, as I trained and helped many of the teams in one way or another.

Even with the relatively small scale of the school competition, the energy is pretty high as the teams compete against the clock. At each game run, the teams cheer their robot on and jump for joy as it rolls back and forth from its task back to home base. The noise drops when a robot makes and error or falls over, but quickly recovers for the next task. It’s an intense scene, watching the teams change out robot parts and resetting it to another program — a lot like watching a race car team switch out a tire and get back on the road.

Presentations are performed before judges who evaluate the information and presentation of their project. Judges also evaluate the teams on teamwork and the construction of the robot. The construction is looked at and the team is quizzed on how they built and programmed the robot. Teamwork is evaluated by giving the team a group challenge where every team member has to participate. This makes the overall competition more than just the robot, and also makes the student participation go beyond robotics.

The robot is, in effect, the team mascot. It’s the sum of the building and the programming of all the students in the team, an extension of the personalities of the kids. What’s fascinating about this is that as teams compete from year to year, the complexity and personality of the robots become more sophisticated; as the teams grow, so do the robots. A mature team learns how to do multiple missions and programs and builds accordingly. This also means that my mentoring actually becomes more challenging as the teams build and program more.

From the school competition, the teams go to the regional tournament. Here, teams from other schools compete to win spots in the state competition. Again, the teams are judged by project, robot construction and teamwork. And they are still being evaluated on their gracious professionalism. Teams are watched for how they conduct themselves and with other teams for good sportsmanship and courtesy. Teams can win or lose a berth to the state level on a note from a judge, but you wouldn’t know it.

The competition floor has a rhythm based on the teams gathering, setting their robot, and running it in a heat. The challenge is a two and a half minute run, with a team robot doing as many tasks on the game table as possible. Robots have to move and be able to push, grab, or slide on the table, so attachments are usually used and placed on the beginning base of the game board. Set up is much like setting things up for any game; the team places their items either on the board or aside on a stand. Tables are checked, and adjusted for accuracy and placement. From there, the tables are declared ready by the judges and the team, usually by a raised judge’s clipboard.

The relative quiet is then broken by a countdown: “Three…two…one…Lego!” The tempo becomes a run, not against each team but against the clock. Two and a half minutes is not a long time try to complete all of the tasks in the game board, but the point is for a team to do their best. Failure is not something to be afraid of, and is not something to be ashamed of. There are no boos given to failed robots by the teams or the audience. It’s a rush to do tasks, and the teams have approaches as different as they are. One robot may have a arm to pick things up, while another may have a scoop to the same task. There is no single right answer for the game, just answers that work.

The team is one focused group at this point, with some members running the robot while others are cheering it on. The younger teams sometimes start slow, but quickly pick up the pace. Older teams run smoothly from task to task. But all teams explode into joy when a robot runs without a hitch, and all the teams are quiet when a robot hits a glitch. Sometimes the two and a half minute time limit is too short, sometimes it can be way too long.

Between heats, teams are practicing or socializing, usually meeting and passing out pins or other tokens to other teams or observers. The teams have a space called the Pit to work on their robot and set up their project. An FLL competition’s pit looks a little like a science fair, with presentation boards showing off information about projects at each station. There’s also usually a bowl of candy or pins for passersby to take. If the team is at their station, one can usually find out about their project.

Team projects are often quite sophisticated. While the presentation board may be that of a middle school student or group of students, the underlying ideas are often much more developed. Winning projects can have the advice of local or regional experts, including college professors and state government officials, and some projects are so unique that they become marketable products or obtain patents. This is probably the best indicator of what students can do if left to discover ideas on their own.

IMG_7684 For this year’s theme, “Nature’s Fury,” one of the teams I helped with talked with a team parent that experienced Hurricane Hugo in Charleston, South Carolina. He told the kids what it was like after the storm had passed.

At the end of the competition, winners are selected in robot design/construction, programming, best project, and other areas of note, including gracious professionalism. For some teams, it’s a step to the next level of competition. For others, it’s the end of a wild and crazy journey where the kids stepped beyond what they originally thought they could do to an entirely new place.

But for all of the teams and their supporters — teachers, mentors and advisors — this is a voyage where the children take the lead in learning and discovery about themselves and the world around them. The Mindstorms robot is much like the teams: both start as a pile of parts, but as time goes on, the robot comes together and becomes a thing that can face the challenges it encounters with new attachments ands programming.

This year, the FLL theme is World Class, to ask students how education can be changed and improved. As a mentor, I cannot wait to see the smiles and discoveries this year’s teams will bring.


Kinetic Sculpture Blends Bizarre Mix of House Beats and Lego Bricks

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p>A classic kids’ toy and the typically adult musical subgenre of acid house don’t usually have much in common, but this year I had the opportunity to weave them together using Lego Technic to form hypnotic and hooky sounds in my new kinetic sculpture “Play House”.

AudioGraft is a festival of contemporary experimental music and sound art held each year in Oxford, England. It’s curated by the Sound Art Research Unit (SARU) at Brookes University and co-promoted by an organisation called Oxford Contemporary Music (OCM), which puts on some of the best gigs in town (in my biased opinion). At the end of 2013 OCM put out a call for proposals for pieces that were playful, immersive and engaging for this year’s show. Despite a nagging concern that the schedule was too tight – still working a day job, I would have to have it ready for March – I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work on such an exciting project, so I worked like crazy on a proposal and a few weeks later received the great news that it was accepted. This story touches on of the process of building the piece, the technical details and what went wrong and right.

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p>For the past few years I have been experimenting with rhythm, including developing a number of Lego musical machines. For years I have been using Lego to prototype ideas, but I had started to use it as a material to put work in context. In particular, my more recent ideas work on getting lost in a youthful creative process whilst riffing off more mature themes, structures and sounds. My proposal was to develop Play House, an automaton that would churn out mesmerising acid house — not the white-gloves-and-whistles sort of acid house, but the more spatial stuff, inspired by artists like Plastikman and Basic Channel. The plan was to play it out loud on speakers and draw the audience in to a room where they could explore the minutiae of the musical and mechanical structures.

Play House sketch - MAKE

My original proposal for Play House had mechanical a sequencer for generating melodies played through a clone of a classic acid synth – the TB303 – something I’ve been itching to do for a long time. The melody would be held together by a drum beat generated by sets out-of-phase chain loops to produce pseudorandom rhythms on analogue drums, a more elaborate setup from my old piece, Clunky Drummer. The drums were also clones of classic analogue synths as the bass, hat and snare sounds from the TR808. To add additional atmosphere I was also keen to add tape-based samples, with Lego actuators pulling cassette tape over tape heads. The audio gear was modular, another great technology for exploring ideas playfully, and a mixer wired each unit up to guitar effects pedals to change the timbre and spatial qualities of the sound. These modules and guitar pedals would be tweaked in real time by various mechanisms to keep the sound shifting. This was all to be controlled by a central composer of sorts, a mechanical random number generator.

One minor spoiler is that I talk about the R&D of the work here, but many of the mechanisms in the proposal had to be dropped from the final piece. Artistically this was a good thing – the piece was just too complicated – but for any die-hard Lego Technic mechanism fans there is a Play House development playlist to see them in action. This includes my early experiments with tape playback that were dropped early on due to the tight schedule. Now though, on with the details…

The random number generator design was a ball run where a little Lego basketball would wind to the top and bounce down through a set of pegs, landing in one of four slots. A mechanism would push beams through all four slots and the ball would get moved into a catching mechanism that pushed an actuator in the machine. Thus, the machine would do one of four operations every time the beams were pushed through. The plan was to use these actuators to tweak the melody of the acid bass line and I thought if that was successful I could duplicate the random number generator to work as a composer that could drop in drum patterns on the beat. The final result can be seen in my lever mechanism video.

computer research

To keep the melody and drums in sync I needed a main sequencer that handled the count of each note. A traditional electronic sequencer often splits up a bar into 16 notes with 4 beats in a bar, i.e., 4/4 time with quarter notes. In this piece I decided instead to use 2/4 with quarter notes, partly because going from 16 to 8 saves a lot of space and complexity, but also because it would generate a melody that repeats on every other beat, and I found this ideal for the hypnotic music I was producing. The construction is very simple because Lego has a 16-tooth gear, so to make an 8-step sequencer you need a central shaft with 8 of these gears on it and from each gear you drive another 16 tooth gear, each being rotated two teeth on from the last. Each driven gear is 1/8th out of phase with the last, and if you put little tappers under each gear and you have a sequencer that taps out 1/8th notes.

Sequencer research 2

The electronic signals of a tapper impact is picked up by piezo transducers. In my original design, I wanted all of the electronics to be completely analogue so you could trace the signal path by eye. I knew I would need some electronics to tidy up noise and debounce signals, but I thought it would be minimal, simple TTL stuff. After getting lost in breadboards and floating signals I exercised artistic license and used AVR chips to handle input and farm it off to other parts of the machine. This broke a little inner aesthetic because I really wanted it to be analogue in every sense, but time was short and in the end it was the right call as I had to rejig the system with software hacks.  Being able to reprogram the AVRs at the last minute gave me a lot of breathing space.

To mechanically store a melody I needed to store a pitch value for each note position in the sequence. I came up with a matrix with eight columns – one for each note – and the rows in the matrix would relate to the pitch that needed to be played for each column. Then, by putting metal strips along each row and putting a metal contact point on each column that can be moved, you have a very crude mechanical memory The column is moved up and down to choose the pitch and when it wants to play that note it sends a 5v signal through the column contact, which in turn conducts through row to determine the pitch. My prototype used this setup to manipulate the melody with just four instructions: 1) select previous note in sequence; 2) select next note in sequence; 3) move selected note pitch up; 4) move selected note pitch down.

Getting the random number generator and matrix selection mechanism to work was the main part of the project R&D. It was incredibly satisfying to get running but as the project progressed I hit serious snags. Firstly if anyone tampered with the machine it could effectively ‘short circuit’ the mechanism where two gears would run against each other, and this would immediately break the piece, it was very high-risk. Secondly the mechanism that picked up the random number ball to actuate other parts of the machine was temperamental depending on the how much it had to push, I couldn’t have it just stop working on site. So very late in the process I had to scrap the design and work from scratch, I went for a much simpler solution based on tried and tested mechanisms from my previous work. The sequencer and drum system was the same, but the pitch selection and note on/off switches would be controlled by out-of-phase gears like in my earlier piece Clash of the Fractions.

Clash of the Fractions

Though painful to lose those mechanisms, as soon as I made the choice to simplify I knew it was the right one. The R&D wasn’t a total loss because I’d been formulating other musical and mechanical ideas in the back of my mind. Dropping the complexity brought all that into the fray and I was free to go with it. The problems I had isolated during R&D helped me figure out elements of the music that would and wouldn’t work. Early musical ideas were sketched out both mechanically and with a test rig using an Arduino to send signals to the modular gear. This was controlled by a simple app I wrote in Qt Creator to poke around with motifs.

Additionally, losing the complexity helped because I wanted the final piece to be multi-colored and the complexity of the color against intricate mechanisms was just too hard on the eye, looking more like an indecipherable technology project than an installation you could really engage with. A much more chunky look benefitted the design both aesthetically and in terms of robustness. The final mechanism has no CPU as such, but the sequencer and drum systems were still intact, and during the R&D I had also been figuring out what sort of voltages I had to send to the synths to make them work and written a first pass on the software needed for the AVRs.

During the build I toyed with the idea of having all the electronics on breadboard, keeping things a bit pluggable like Lego. I’m glad I didn’t try this — even if the wires were glued down it would just take one curious hand to pluck out one cable to break the whole thing. Instead, I used stripboard which was robust but kept the homemade feel, and it was wired with an intentionally jumbled look with multi-colored wire between points. This played off the Lego colours and kept a slightly bonkers breadboard aesthetic.

In terms of the embedded stuff, the drum circuit was the simplest, so that’s where I started. I knew the impact code would be reused on the sequencer so getting that working was a good reassurance. The setup is similar to this spooky arduino project, but far simpler because it doesn’t care about impact volume. There are four analog inputs on the AVR for picking up the piezo — either bass, snare, open hat, or closed hat. When it gets a spike, it sends 5 volts off to the respective drum module to make a sound. I wanted to get a reliable 1 millisecond impact so used interrupts to clock the output. After that it was held off a few milliseconds before accepting any more inputs. Ironing out these issues early on was a life-saver; I would not have time to debug these fiddly issues when it came to cramming at the end of the project.

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The sequencer circuit got a lot more complicated. The way it works is, when one of the eight piezos are hit, the sequencer has to read its corresponding pitch value from a potentiometer and note on/off switch to determine if it should sound. If so, it would send that pitch voltage to the synth through an analogue demultiplexer switch. There’s a second level of indirection too — because I’d had to ditch the mechanical pitch matrix, I no longer had fixed “rows” to select the pitch voltage from, so I added a bank of eight pots, which acted as reference voltages for the synth. The demultiplexer would choose one of these based on the voltage from the pots in the sequencer. I had an awful lot of inputs and was running short on time to test things, so I built it straight up on stripboard with enough scope to rejig it if something went wrong.

One note is I find it very helpful to use AVR comparison grids to figure out which chip to use. This non-official one is a little out of date, but I find it quicker than the web interface on the Atmel site. Given the number of inputs required and whether they were digital or analogue immediately shows what is feasible and the most logical way to split up the circuit.

The big problem came from my chip-to-chip communication. Initially I thought I only needed to send a few simple signals between chips. On the first run I had lots of spurious hits and things were getting out of sync. I had made a bad assumption about how to represent what was being hit in the sequence; instead I needed to send more comprehensive data between chips to catch errors. To get it working in haste and to avoid resoldering, I used the existing connections and made the chips talk to each other with some hand-rolled, 2-wire clock and data code, and to my amazement it worked first time.

In my other audio pieces I have used headphones to sort of “step into” the sound of a piece after taking it in structurally. I find it puts a nice division in picking it apart two different ways. For Play House I was hoping to do the opposite and have the music played through speakers in an enclosed room, so the sound would draw you in to the structure. Realistically this was not possible given the venue — it was in a residential area, so cranking out acid house all day wasn’t really reasonable. The main consideration though is that the OVADA warehouse where it was shown would be shared with other artists, so we had to mitigate audio bleed between pieces. OCM and I toyed with a lot of ideas, but using headphones was the only thing that kept that split I wanted, and it ended up working quite nicely using children’s coat hangers to hang the headphones. One important note: I put a compressor between the output and amp as there was potential for large spikes in sound. I needed to ensure the audiences’ ears were protected.

The last week of the build was fantastic fun but a little too crazy. I pulled multiple all nighters – more so than I used to when hacking away as a kid – and boy does it mess up your biology. I discovered the trick is not to have sugar in the middle of the night — if you do, the sugar crash makes things weird. Even though I was taking time off my very technical job to do a very technical task, it felt like a holiday of sorts and looking back it’s surreal how everything flew together.

In the end, the project did run over, which was stressful but a good push to get it in for the show. The stress wasn’t so bad that it wasn’t fun and the push helped me realize where I had made bad estimates. In this case I knew the deadline was tight so I shouldn’t have been so ambitious with the R&D. However, I wanted to impress, so I stretched myself too far. An unexpected bonus from this project was how much I zoned into the playlists I was putting together for research; this opened up something new musically that has changed how I write music and given me a fresh view on some existing ideas. As a wrap up, I’m working on a playlist for OCM and some new tracks for an E.P.: http://soundcloud.com/alexallmont/mind-play-house


How I Got My Job as a Lego Designer

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Lasse Lauesen at Maker Faire Bay Area 2013, holding the Lego Mindstorms DINOR3X that he designed. (Photo by Gregory Hayes)

Growing up in the Danish countryside, in the wild west of Jutland, I had no idea that I’d end up pursuing a calling in robotics engineering and development at Lego. I currently work with Lego Mindstorms, a programmable robotics construction kit that enables kids of all ages to make their own robots out of Lego.

I really love my job, so I wish that I could tell you all about it. However, working in the domain of highly classified development hinders me from doing so. One thing I can tell you is about my journey up to this point, my maker story, which happens to involve quite a bit of Lego building.

Childhood

Since as far back as I can remember, I’ve always been addicted to creating stuff. My father was a mechanic and my mother a florist, so I grew up with a large amount of creativity and craftsmanship. During most of my childhood we were renovating our house, and I was always there to give a helping hand, which is probably where I got my passion for building. I was introduced to Lego Duplo at an early age and quickly started creating high towers and houses.

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Lasse as a child, next to one of his Duplo towers.

I moved on to the Lego City sets, where you could make much more detailed models. I would follow the instructions for a model once just after I got them, but they would quickly be destroyed and turned into something else in combination with my other Lego toys. Even though I really enjoyed my Lego City sets, there was a need for something more, and that need was satisfied with the Lego Technic sets — the axles, the gears, the pneumatics, and last but not least, the motors. I was now able to make my Lego creations move, which opened a whole new world to me. With these sets I was able to replicate many of the farming machines that I was surrounded with.

Now, my childhood wasn’t all about Lego, growing up, I also enjoyed spending time outside. You could say that Lego was my evening and rainy day activity, so thank God Denmark is a very rainy country. But when I was outside, I was playing in the woods and fields that surrounded our house. I enjoyed building cabins in the treetops with Tarzan tracks between them. My mom has this story she likes to tell people, which describes me pretty well. I once came running into the kitchen and asked her how far up in the trees I was allowed to climb. She gave me a response that the has regretted so many times, she told me that I was allowed to climb upwards as long as I was sure that I could climb back down. The next thing she saw was me hanging on to the very thin branches at the top of a tree where normally only birds would be found.

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Lasse’s cabin in the trees

I Discover Lego Technic

In 1997 something very special happened with Lego that blew my mind: they launched one of their first programmable Lego Technic sets. Most of you might think that I’m talking about the Mindstorms series, but no. I’m talking about a set called the Code-Pilot. This set contained a programmable brick that could be programmed using an integrated barcode scanner. Along with the set came a big cardboard card with the barcodes that represented instructions that would be executed in the order they where scanned. This was truly amazing to me; I was now able to combine my Lego Technic bricks and motors with a programmable brick and sensors to make my Lego creations come to LIFE!

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The Code-Pilot set

This set introduced a new concept to me, something called programming. All the play that I had with this set is really what shaped my passion for automation and robots. It created a hunger in me for technology, that just grew bigger and bigger. For some reason, I didn’t discover the Mindstorms series at that point, so instead I moved into the computers and left Lego behind.

Welding, Coding, and Mindstorms

I started welding and went crazy in our garage. I created stuff like horse wagons, trebuchets, and go-carts. I had also spent some of the rainy Denmark days teaching myself how to program websites with HTML, PHP, and MySQL. Back then websites were one of the easiest ways for people to learn about programming by themselves. Although I was able to weld, do electric circuits, and program websites, there was still something missing. In my eyes I had been creating cooler stuff with my Lego set in the garage.

There was more I needed to learn, so I signed up for a technical high school in Denmark. During that first year I was introduced to the Mindstorms RCX for the first time. This incredible toy brought back my love for Lego. I found a friend at the school that had the same passion for programmable Lego, and together we spent some of our weekends creating Lego robots and machines. With the RCX I was introduced to embedded programming using the C language, and I moved on to programming microcontrollers and creating my own PCBs during my studies.

I Study Industrial Automation and Computer Engineering

After high school I was sure that I wanted some work experience before I started studying engineering, so I enrolled in a four year Automation Technician program, working in industrial automation with machines and robots. The program gave me a lot of experience of designing control systems for industrial machines and robots. I traveled Europe setting up and configuring production lines, and I received two awards for my efforts during this study. This was very exciting, but I always felt that I was lacking the full understanding of what exactly was going on through the whole system.

Therefore I started studying Computer Engineering at the University of Aalborg in northern Denmark. This gave me deeper insights into computer systems, and I now had knowledge in all layers of automated systems. I’ve always found the best way for me to understand the theories and methods is to play with them and experiment, as I’ve never been good at reading thick theory books. Using Lego Mindstorms, that was exactly what I did. It helped me to play with a lot of the theories that I was being taught at the university.

Lego Notices Us

I was lucky enough that my Lego friend from back in high school also studied at Aalborg university, so we reunited and started creating amazing stuff with the Lego Mindstorms. We kept making robots and machines with Lego, and our creations started to catch the attention of some Lego employees.

quoteIn 2010, Lego reached out to us and asked if we wanted to create a model that we could show for Lego World in Copenhagen. We created a booth that included 8 Mindstorms robots out of our own Lego collection, and went without knowing what we had signed up for. Our booth was a model of a cargo terminal, where we had an automated conveyor belt and two autonomous cargo trucks. The booth also contained two Mindstorms forklifts, each of which was controllable by a joystick made out of Lego Mindstorms. This was a huge success at Lego world, and Lego quickly asked us for a list of parts we would need to make a copy of it.

Then they invited us to show off the cargo terminal at the Lego World event in Holland. This event opened our eyes to a whole new world, a world with others like ourselves, who had a passion for robotics and used Lego to bring their ideas to life. We both got included in a group called MCP (Mindstorms Community Partner), which is a group of selected adult Mindstorms users that discuss the product and its future with developers at Lego. Through this program, we also got the chance to be supported by Lego on our projects, so if we had a good idea, we could ask Lego for the pieces we needed and they would then send us everything, if they found the idea interesting. We felt like Charlie at the chocolate factory, as we now had a chance to realize some of the projects that we had always wanted to do. We also got informed about Lego’s plans to launch the third generation, now known as the EV3. In the closed forum we got access to pictures and videos of early prototypes and we were discussing different aspects of the product during the development. This was very exciting time for me, it made me feel very special to be a part of a select few that knew about the project.

Dynaway Asks for Our Help

But Lego wasn’t the only one who had noticed what my friend and I were doing with our spare time. We were approached by a company called Dynaway, that makes specialized software to help control large manufacturing facilities. They had a hard time demoing their software at exhibitions, because it needed to integrate to a factory to show its full potential. This became a part-time job for my friend and I while we were studying at the university. We created Lego models of two different production plants, each one by one meter with four and eight Mindstorms NXT bricks. We created a server that helped Dynaway’s software talk to the Lego factories as if they were real factories. This is still to date the biggest Lego project I’ve ever taken part in, and also the most complex. This required a lot of design, both physical and digital, and we would not be traveling with it when it was to be shown to the public. Therefore we needed to make sure that both the models and the software were very stable and easy to restart. Here my experience in industrial automation really paid off.

Traveling the World with Lego

In this period of my life, the Lego sponsorship took my friend and me around the world with other enthusiasts to showcase our creations and inspire others. Among our destinations were the World Robotic Olympiad in Abu Dhabi (2011), Kuala Lumpur (2012) and Jakarta (2013); and the yearly FIRST championships in St. Louis, Mo. At these events we would mostly bring some of our bigger creation like the Lego Mindstorms Blimps. Those are flying Lego models that use helium balloons as the main source of lift and have propellers that enable control of lift, propulsion, and steering.

My Lego Internship

When we were at the event in Abu Dhabi, Lego called us in for a meeting with all the Mindstorms enthusiasts that they had sponsored to go there, and announced that they were looking for 12 people that would become the Lego Mindstorms Expert Panel. This would be a group that worked closely with Lego on the development of Mindstorms EV3 product. I got included in this select group, and started collaborating with Lego on the future generation of Mindstorms. Through this close collaboration with Lego, I was also able to get a Lego internship.

I had my first day in at the Lego headquarters in Billund on the 11th of April 2012, where my task was to investigate how to integrate the new Mindstorms product with smartphones. I really can’t describe the feeling I had that day when I sat down at my own desk inside Lego headquarters, knowing that I was going to be a big part of the team that created a new version of the product that had helped me throughout my whole life up to this point. Even better, it turned out that my manager was one of the creators of the Lego set that kickstarted my interest in robots, the 8479 that I mentioned earlier. During my internship, I created a lot of different prototype apps, two of which are what came to be the official Lego Mindstorms Robot Commander app.

Designing the DINOR3X

Even though I was working full time at Lego during my internship, I was still a part of the expert panel of fans that also got different tasks. One of the big tasks that we were asked to work on was to create bonus models. This would be models created by fans but posted on the official Lego website and promoted by Lego as extra models that could be built with the new Mindstorms EV3 set. I had, as I bet most who have played with Lego, always dreamt of being a Lego designer, so being asked to do a model for Lego was like a dream come true. When I had to decide what the model should be, I was very determined to create a walking four-legged robot. And I even had a specific walking mechanism that I really wanted to implement using Lego: Theo Jansen’s “Strandbeest.” This mechanism has always fascinated me, as it has such a lifelike movement to it. The biggest challenge was to build this mechanism using the limited parts that came with the set, but after a lot of trial and error, I managed to make it work. With this mechanism I created the DINOR3X bonus model.

My internship eventually ended and I had to go back to the university for my final exams, but I got a part time job at Lego so that I could continue the work I had started there during my internship.

When I got my degree, I was hired as a full-time employee. My work in computer engineering on Lego Mindstorms involves working with our existing product, the Mindstorms EV3, but also peeking into the crystal ball, thinking about creating the toys and tools, that will inspire the innovators of tomorrow. Still very much feeling like a kid myself, I wish I could tell you more about that last bit, but as I said … I’d lose my job if I did that. And that is something I really don’t want to! See, getting to play with Lego and robots at work feels pretty goddam cool…