SAN JOSE, Calif. – Few are more excited about Lego’s new Mindstorms sets rolling out next month than Silicon Valley engineers.
Many of them were drawn to the tech sector by the flagship kits that came on the market in 1998, introducing computerized movement to the traditional snap-together toy blocks and allowing the young innovators to build their first robots. Now, 15 years later, those robot geeks are entrepreneurs and designers, and the colorful plastic bricks have an outsized influence in their lives.
Techies tinker at Lego play stations in workplaces. Engineers mentor competitive Lego League teams. Designers use them to mock up larger projects ideas. And executives stand Lego creations on their desks alongside family photos.
“Everyone I work with played with them as children. We sit around talking Lego. It’s a shared common experience,” said Travis Schuh, who reaches into his bin of plastic blocks when he needs a quick prototype at the Silicon Valley medical robotic firm where he works.
The new Mindstorms sets, on sale Sept. 1, are simpler for the younger crowd and more versatile for sophisticated users than two earlier versions.
The sets are designed for kids over 10 and make it easy to build basic, remote-controlled robots, including a cobra-like snake that snaps Lego brick fangs. Some shoot balls, others drive along color-coded lines.
But for $349, far more expensive than typical building toys, customers get a much more complex and powerful system.
“There’s actually a lot of engineering that goes into Lego bricks, and the systems you can prototype out of them are pretty sophisticated,” said Stanford University engineering professor Christian Gerdes, who uses them in his classroom.
Hackers will also find plenty to do with the new Mindstorms, as the open source software uses Linux for the first time, and controller apps are integrated for tablets and mobile phones.
Denmark-based Lego first sold its plastic bricks 55 years ago, and watched them grow into one of the world’s most popular toys. But company officials say Mindstorms, designed for children but quickly snapped up by adults, changed the market.