Monday, 27 January 2014

“First the living room! Then the world!” Review : 31313 LEGO Mindstorms EV3 (Part 1)

Like many people, I believe that one day I shall take over the world.  Although while they’re not going to, I am.  And my plan has just got one step closer.

Things will change when I am ruler of all that I survey.  For example:
  • Any TV programme that involves the audience phoning in and voting, via a premium rate phone number, will immediately be cancelled and replaced with a science programme.
  • Anybody who is bumps into another person while in public, because they were looking down at their mobile phone will be cast into the bog of eternal stench. (1)
  • Everybody will be required to learn how to juggle.

There will be plenty of other changes.  You will be informed at the appropriate time.

So in order to achieve this, I clearly need an army.  And what better than a robot army? (2)

Fortunately, for Christmas, Mrs Boo bought me the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 set.  Build and programme your own robots.  And nowhere in the instructions does it say “May not be used for taking over the world.”

Result!

So a couple of nights ago I figured I’d better see what’s what and learn the basics.

Opening up the box, this is what we find…


Bags full of goodies!



The EV3 Brick



Two large motors



Cables for attaching the motors / sensors to the EV3 brick and the PC cable



Medium motor, sensors and tracks



The instruction manual



Static laden sticker sheet!


The artwork shows five robots than can be built with the box contents, but only one of them, TRACK3R, has the instructions actually in the manual.  The other four need to be downloaded from the Mindstorms website.  In fact when you get to the download page on the site there are seventeen sets of build instructions - the five originals plus twelve developed by the user community.

So as a kind of Mindstorms 101, I decided to start with TRACK3R.  With the exception of the EV3 brick, the motors, sensors and the cabling, all the actual LEGO bricks appear to be standard Technic stuff.

To begin, we break open the large amount of batteries that we’ve purchased and put six AA batteries in the EV3 brick, and two AAA batteries in what later turns out to be an Infra Red remote.

Then we build a frame and attach the two large motors…



Frame.  With motors.

The EV3 brick goes on next...


The mighty brick in place!

...followed by some wheels and then tracks are attached, driven by the motors.


We have tracks!

Next up some of the cabling is run.  The top of the brick has four ports marked A - D, which  are for hooking up to the motors.  The bottom of the brick has another four, 1 - 4, which are the ports that the sensors attach to. (3)  Here we’ve hooked up the two large motors to ports B & C, and then added some bodywork.  I put the stickers on as I went, and that was probably the most awkward part of the build.  The static between the sticker and the plate was incredible.  As soon as the sticker was within an inch of the plastic, it pulled itself onto it, and when you’re holding the piece still with one hand, and holding the sticker with the other it’s fairly problematical!  More by luck than judgement, all four that I had to apply went on pretty straight.



...and we're mobile!

At this point you actually get to fire up the brick!  Following a pictorial guide in the manual, you choose a demo prog that come pre-installed on the brick.  This simply moves and turns the robot a couple of times, presumably to ensure you have everything wired up before you get too far along.

After a successful test it’s back to the build and at the other end, the next step is to attach the medium motor and cable it up...


Medium motor, cabled up.

A few more minutes of construction and we have whirling blades of spinning plastic death!


None shall stand before me!

Another demo prog is run at this point to ensure that the medium motor has been hooked up correctly, and TRACK3R ambles around the living room carpet, spinning it’s blades and frightening any small animals that get in its path. (4) 

The last step is to attach the IR sensor to the back of the robot and run a third pre-installed piece of code.  This allows the robot to be remotely controlled by the IR transmitter / remote / thingummybob.  There’s a channel switch on the remote, and by putting it in the first position you can drive the robot around.  There are four switches, which gives you forward and reverse control over both tracks, much like a tank, meaning you can drive forward and backward, but also spin on the spot by moving one track in one direction, and the other track in the opposite direction.

Flipping the channel switch onto the next position gives you control over the whirling blades of death.


Soldier 0000001 in the Boo army

And broadly speaking, that’s as far as the manual takes you.  If you want to understand more, you’ll need a reference.  There are some instructions on the Mindstorms website, but I’m a bookish sort of person, and so I’ve picked up a copy of The LEGO Mindstorms EV3 Laboratory by Daniele Benedettelli (5)   


I recommend this book if you know nothing (or indeed something) about Mindstorms

(Image courtsey of Amazon.co.uk)


Since then I’ve had a go at writing and downloading some simple programs, and now it’s just a case of buying 100,000 more EV3 sets, fitting them with weaponry and programming them all, and I can take over the world!

Assuming I can afford the batteries...




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(1) The bog of eternal stench, seen in the film ‘Labyrinth’ is (currently) a fictional creation, which “is a seething swampy body of "water". The bog regularly emits unpleasant gurgles, belches, and other noises, and sends forth an repulsive odor. Brackish muddy fluids and bubbling openings dot the area, and sunken tree branches and swamp poke out from the horrid depths. Legend has it that if you put so much as one toe in the Bog you will smell bad....forever.”  My scientists will toil, night and day to create such a bog, into which thoughtless mobile phone users will be cast.

Quoted from muppet.wikia.com

(2) I’ve seen Terminator.  Robots are badass!

(3)  There are a couple of other ports too.  A mini USB, marked ‘PC’ is the port that you use to hook the brick up to your computer to download the programs you write, although you can do this via Bluetooth.  I say ‘you’ can because I’ve tried it, and the ‘pairing process’ is utterly incomprehensible to me.  There’s also a full sized USB port which is used to slave other EV3 bricks and finally there’s an SD card slot which (I believe) can be used as a memory expansion slot.

(4) We don’t have any small animals, so no small animals were frightened.  I’m just assuming that if we had, they would have been.


(5) Who, apparently, prefers to be known as Danny because otherwise people assume he’s a girl.  The book, what I've read of it so far, is excellent.  It assumes no prior knowledge, but goes into plenty of detail for those who want to know more than the basics.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

New Year, Old Sets...

I’m not usually one for New Year’s resolutions.  When I’ve set them in the past they usually revolve around eating less, getting fitter and so on, and they last from 00.01 on January 1st, right up until the moment that I find a bar of chocolate.  

During the Christmas period (1) that doesn’t take very long in our house.

But this year I think I’m going to make one.  As I sit here in mid-January, I have already been overtaken by the first new Technic releases of 2014.  In the summer, I was waiting impatiently for the new sets to come out.  Right now I could have done with the new ones being delayed a bit!

As you may be aware, over the past 12 months or so, I haven’t exactly denied myself when it comes to buying LEGO.  But while I’ve had plenty of time to purchase new things, I haven’t always had the time to build them.  The result being that I’m starting to get quite a backlog of unopened boxes.  Not so bad if they were all the size of the mini off-roader for example…



Lego Technic 42001 Mini Off-Roader
Mini by name, mini by nature...
(Image courtesy of Brickset.com)


...but when there’s the likes of an 8110 Unimog, an 8043 Excavator, the 42009 Mobile Crane MkII, the 9396 Helicopter and so on waiting to be built, that suddenly starts adding up to a whole bunch of time. (2)



The mighty 8110 Unimog takes rather longer to build
(Image courtesy of Brickset.com)


At the weekend I looked at picking up the 42026 Black Champion Racer and 42027 Desert Racer.  These are the two mid-to-low range sets that use pull back motors and can be combined to make an Off-Road Racing Truck.

These are basically the 2014 equivalent of the 42010 Off-Road Racer and 42011 Race Car, again with the pull-back motors, and which could be combined to build a dragster.
Both of which are sitting in our living room, still waiting to be built!

So should I be buying new sets when I’m so far behind with my existing collection? (3)

That aside, it’s clear that if I want to carry on acquiring at my current rate, the only solution will be to build a bit quicker.  So here’s the plan.  Which will hopefully last a bit longer then the ‘no chocolate’ thing.

I’m going to try and build a new set every week until I’m up to date.

Try?  “Do or do not.  There is no try.” as Yoda once said.

Ok, I am going to build a new set every week until I’m up to date. (4)

So how’s 2014 going so far?  Well I built the Seattle Space Needle, so one set done!

Then again, I’ve bought the Technic Hot Road, Snowmobile and Twin Rotor Helicopter, Architecture Guggenheim Museum and Cuusoo Mars Rover in the past two weeks.

Ah well.  One step forward, five steps back.




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(1) And every other day of the year too.

(2) Don’t get me wrong - I’m not complaining!  Nice problem to have!

(3) Yes.  Yes I should.  Despite what Mrs Boo says.

(4) Probably.  The road to hell is, as is often mentioned, paved with good intentions.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Tossed Salads & Scrambled Eggs. Review : LEGO Architecture 21003, Seattle Space Needle

Christmastime, Mistletoe and wi…  Hang on, we’ve already done that, haven’t we?  But as well as plants and plonk, Christmas also means pressies!  And I was fortunate enough to get a Lego shaped gift this year.

In the online world, my favourite hangout for the past decade has been the gaming site, Eurogamer.net, or more specifically, the forum of said site.  For some years now, we’ve run an EG Secret Santa, whereby you get given the name and address of another forumite and depending on how much research you put in, either send them something that suits them down to the ground, or something wholly inappropriate.

I think some some people take ‘wholly inappropriate’ as a target, rather than something to be avoided...

Anyway, I took part as I usually do, and in mid-December a parcel arrived at Chez Boo, which rattled in a most promising manner.  When I finally opened it on the big day, as well as a pile of sweets (always appreciated), I was delighted to find a couple of items - one was the 21003 LEGO Architecture Series model of the Seattle Space Needle, the other, which baffled me for a while, was the soundtrack to Frasier.

Don’t get me wrong - I was very pleased with it.  I’m a fan of the show, and this was music from the series, interspersed with clips of dialogue, so good stuff all round.  But while I spend a lot of time in the LEGO, LEGO, LEGO thread on Eurogamer, I don’t ever remember mentioning an admiration for this particular show.

And then it dawned on me.  Where is Frasier set?

Seattle!

So with a big thank you to Ignatius_Cheese (1), I put the CD on and settled down to build myself a Space Needle…

The box is of the usual Architecture Series quality (2), and has a picture of the model on the front, while the back also has a couple of images of the actual building itself.  The side panel notes that the set was designed by Adam Reed Tucker, who coincidentally designed my first Architecture set, Fallingwater.



LEGO Architecture Series, 21003 - Seattle Space Needle



...and the back of the box



Opening the box reveals a nice glossy manual, and in addition to the build instructions, it gives a short history of the Needle, plus a few words from Adam Reed Tucker.


A manual of the glossy variety


There’s also a facts and figures page.  I can only presume the they chose this particular Pinnacle type as otherwise the rod would have been too heavy! (3)



Pretty sure it should be Lightning Rod


The other things we find in the box are two bags of parts and four flexible rods.



The management would like to apologise for the poor quality
of some of these photographs.  Steps have been taken to ensure
better quality in future.


It’s a modest set at 57 pieces, so with the dulcet tones of Dr Frasier Crane in my ears, it’s on with the build.  Pretty soon we have a 10 x 8 base and the bottom of the tower…



The actual Space Needle has a 30 foot thick slab of concrete
underneath the base to lower the centre of gravity, fact fans!


The main ‘stem’ of the buidling soon goes up…




And then I turned the page of the instruction book over…

In the LEGO community, there are a great many people who would consider that they fall into that group often referred to as ‘purists’.  In essence, it means that if you want to build something out of LEGO, then that’s what you do.  You don’t build it ‘mostly’ out of LEGO, and then finish of a tricky part with something else because there isn’t an appropriate LEGO part.  Other crimes against LEGO include glueing pieces together, cutting them, painting them, melting them and so forth. (4)

So I wondered what had happened when Adam Reed Tucker took his Space Needle prototype into the boardroom for a final sign off on his design.

“Hello Adam.  What have you got for us?”

“Well, this is the Seattle Space Needle, for the Architecture line.”

There is much nodding of heads and appreciative noises at Tucker’s simple, clean design.

“Very nice, Adam, that will make a great addition to the series.”

Meanwhile, one of the head honcho's has picked up the model and is taking a closer look.

“Say, Adam.  These three flexi rods that you’ve used on the main structure.  I don’t believe we make any this long.  How have you made them fit?”

“Ah, yes…  Well I’ve put in the instructions that the builder takes the rods that we supply and er…”

“Yes?”

“Er…  cuts a bit off with a pair of scissors.”

Cue that noise you get in films where a needle is dragged across a record and suddenly everybody in the bar goes silent and slowly turns round to look at the hero who's just said something inappropriate to the baddies girlfriend.

It’s certainly not what I expected to find in an official set.  Everything that I’ve learnt over the past months that I’ve been back into LEGO, and in particular, with what is and is not acceptable for a CUUSOO submission suggests that any kind of mutilation, or ‘illegal’ use of parts is not tolerated at all by the LEGO group, so this came as a surprise.

I asked the good folk of Brickset.com what they thought about the whole ‘altering parts’ thing, and to be fair, there’s a reasonable split between those who think that there’s always a way to build what you want with official parts, and those who take the aforementioned view, "It’s my brick and I’ll cut it if I want to.” 

In fact I was reading something only this morning, on the very excellent Bricknerd.com, run by Nerd-In-Chief, Tommy Williamson.  He’d done a review of  the book ‘LEGO Space - Building The Future’ by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard (which incidentally I got for Christmas - yay!), and I noticed the following potentially heretical statement:

“The main difference is what might be called "illegal" techniques. You won't find an official LEGO model using things like the lever base without the lever, or removed Minifigure hands and hooks. But you'll find these advanced and out-of-the-box techniques in this book. It's really when a builder learns to embrace a little "rule breaking" that they take their building to the next level. I'm not talking about cutting bricks or modifying parts, this is just simply pushing existing elements beyond what they were intended for, and Pete and Tim are masters of this.”

Quoted from Bricknerd.com 

Interesting view.

Anyway, I wielded the scissors (and was grateful for the fact that the set included a spare rod in case you make a mistake).  Fortunately the spare was not required.  Putting the rods into place gave me this…


Nearly finished!

A few more pieces as the job is complete!






It’s a lovely little set.  Not big or complex, but there is something immensely right about it.  Aesthetically it’s extremely satisfying, and the curves of the tower means that it’s very nice to pick up.  Mrs Boo took one look at it and pronounced that she much preferred it to Fallingwater.

Highly recommended.




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(1) I suspect that’s not what his parents named him.

(2) I.e. a cut above most LEGO boxes, and openable without destroying part of it.

(3) I may scoff, but I suspect that broadly speaking, the LEGO designers’ grasp of the English Language is a darned sight better than my Danish!


(4) In the interests of balance, there are plenty of people who take the view ‘They’re my pieces, so I’ll do just what I like with them.’