Invasion of the DIY Robots

Mindstorm and the Playful Invention Company hope to hook kids on the joys of creative play with robot-assembly kits

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In August, Lego, the Danish toy company, launched a second generation of its best-selling Mindstorms Robotics Invention Kit. First unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show last January, the NXT version had already landed a cover story in Wired magazine. That same month, though with less fanfare, a Toronto-based startup called the Playful Invention Company began selling its PicoCricket.

The connection: Both toys are the fruits of a decades-long collaboration between Lego and the MIT Media Lab. The PicoCricket—the "pico" stands for Playful Invention Company—grew out of research led by Mitchel Resnick, the professor who runs the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab and who developed the original Mindstorms technology.

In the late 1990s, after Mindstorms had launched, Resnick began thinking about what would come next. "More than 1 million kits have sold," says Resnick of the original robotics toy. "But they had appealed primarily to those interested in building traditional robotic vehicles— things with wheels and a few movable arms. We wanted to broaden the audience to those not interested in traditional robotics. The Cricket is more about creative inventions."


  Like Mindstorms, PicoCricket is a kit of parts that can be used to build an infinite variety of robotic inventions. The kit contains an assortment of pom poms, pipe cleaners, and other craft materials reminiscent of a summer camp art period. It also includes a collection of Lego bricks and electronics: the Cricket "brain" and a motor, colored lights and a soundbox, a digital display, and an infrared beamer that allows the Cricket to communicate with a PC on which kids write the programs that control their invention's behavior. Perhaps the most important parts in the Cricket kit are the four sensors, which detect light, sound, touch, and electrical resistance.

Cricket differs from Mindstorms in that it isn't a Lego product. When Resnick presented the company with the research prototype, Lego felt that it didn't make sense in their product line, and yet Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen—vice-chairman of the board and the grandson of the company's founder—was intrigued. So Lego decided to partially fund a startup that could commercialize the Media Lab research. The agreement allows the Playful Invention Company to include Lego parts in the kit and gives Lego rights to use the Cricket technology in its own product line.

Despite its differences, the PicoCricket reflects the same philosophy as Mindstorms: a belief in the importance of open-ended play. "There are lots of electronic toys out there," says Resnick. "But they come preprogrammed with behaviors that kids then interact with. Our goal was to put more control in the hands of kids."


  The PicoCricket kit comes with instructions for eight projects, including a magic lantern and a (non-edible) birthday cake—both designs refined over the course of several workshops conducted at a network of science museums around the world. But kids who took part in the development workshops came up with myriad inventions of their own: a wearable jukebox that played different songs depending on the coins inserted, a bedroom security system that sounded an alarm if the door was opened, and a pair of shoes with colored lights that flashed in different patterns depending on the wearer's pace.

Sidhanth Grover Venkatasubramaniam, now 10, made a robotic ladybug when he took part in a workshop at the MIT Museum in 2003. "When the sensors detected light, the wings would flap and it would hover over the ground," he explains. Although Grover Venkatasubramaniam already plays with Legos and Lego Mindstorms, he says he would like to get the new toy because "there are things you can do with the Pico that are more creative than the Mindstorms. You can build real-life things like cakes and then make them musical."

The open-ended nature of the PicoCricket allows kids to think creatively. But more than simply exercising the imagination, the toy provides an entry point—a back door, really—into math and science. "One of the things that we've see over and over in our research is the importance of building on kids' interests," says Resnick. "Kids who aren't traditionally interested in math and science end up learning important ideas about math and science by building on their interest in art and music."

It's too early to predict the success of the Cricket—it has been commercially available for less than a month and can't leverage the Lego brand as Mindstorms could. Yet in the co-creation era defined by ReadyMade and Make magazines, it's hard to imagine that it will fail. "It was lots of fun making things and controlling their action," says Grover Venkatasubramaniam. "The most fun was programming the robots. It felt like giving life to lifeless bodies."

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