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Presents of mind Lego just got a mind of its own. Lisa Russell and Tim Kaye try out the Mindstorms Robotics Invention System.

Until recently you could be secure in the knowledge that when you put your Lego models away at night, they would still be waiting for you in the morning. Nowadays you could wake up to find that they have been partying all night - playing cards, raiding the drinks cabinet or even having a quick game of basketball, while you have been asleep.

Lego has just launched a robotics set, which melds the best of the traditional model kits with computer programming. Mindstorms, developed over the last decade with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is based around a programmable 'brick' which can be taught to interact with sensors, motors and even other robots.

The new brick takes Lego into the 21st century, giving aspiring civil engineers the potential to build their first automated construction machine, a bridge which can open and shut automatically or even a self propelling, self automated camera.

Building a simple robot is easy, and the sophistication of the system only really becomes apparent once you have mastered the basic challenges. These include robotic arms and legs, walking intruder alarms and a robot that can draw.

In our first week with Mindstorms, we stuck mainly to the challenges presented in the pack. Our first two wheeled robot looked round at random until it saw a light and then headed towards it. The next robot accurately followed a curved black line around the supplied test route. Torbot, the latest creation, is learning how to wander round a table without falling off.

The system is relatively easy to set up. Running a CD on a home computer, you are taken gently through the stages needed to build and program your first robots to tackle their early challenges, refering users to the manual when necessary.

Programming is not as difficult as it sounds. As might be expected from Lego, programs are built up from blocks displayed on screen. These tell the robot to perform actions like switching on a motor, waiting for a certain period, checking light and touch sensors and so on. Programs only take a moment to download from PC to brick via an infrared link and can be modified easily when the robot does not perform as expected. One early attempt had ours trying to burrow through a bookcase rather than find its way around it.

Mindstorms is an enormously versatile (over 700 pieces) and interesting system. Once past the initial challenges, users will require considerable lateral thinking to identify a worthy and feasible problem, build a model that is physically capable of performing the task, and then program it to cope with every eventuality.

Having been brought up without gears and the like in our childhood Lego, we were surprised to find the programming easier than designing some of the physical models. Today's generation of Lego builders should have no problem with the intuition needed to translate motor power into the desired movements.

We gather that the target age range is 12 to 14, but can certainly vouch for its appeal to thirtysomethings. Don't be fooled into thinking that this is just another expensive (circa 160) toy. It is more in the grand tradition of electronics kits and chemistry sets.

By the way, if you do manage to persuade the kids to ask Santa for one, don't forget a supply of batteries, or else you'll be raiding your torches, remote controls and radios to feed your hungry little robot.

More information at www.

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