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LEGOs go from toy to technology

March 18, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
In Santa Clara this weekend, nearly 5,000 people attended something called "Bricks by the Bay". The "bricks" are LEGOs. And they've gone beyond buildings, to trains and planes and Sumo wrestling robots.

There was "One Tower to Rule Them All" -- 22,000 bricks, 145 pounds of Orcs and Ents. There were buildings so real, they looked right out of "Transformers" or "Star Wars" or ancient Rome.

Nearly 5,000 members of the public marveled at nearly 400 models during a nonprofit event named "Bricks by the Bay." To many of the builders, technology is the future of LEGO.

"On your mark, get set, LEGO!" Eva Carrender is renowned for these words at tournaments around the country. The combatants are robots, made from LEGOs.

In 1998, the manufacturer introduced Mindstorms, components to create machines. This year, the segment is exploding with a thousand third party computers, and motors and more sensors than you can shake a smartphone at.

Walt White of Manteca says, "The sensor explosion is really what's driving most of the new work in the Mindstorms world."

Carrender agrees. She uses robots to inspire kids. "I have a lift arm on this robot, I have an ultrasonic, I have a timer. So it's actually a 4-tier program."

"Now there are third party sensors," adds White. "And compasses, accelerometers, lots of fancy stuff."

White is part of a phenomenon in and around Silicon Valley: you might call them recovering programmers, who are discovering that building models is a lot like building a computer program.

"Building a LEGO model is a lot like writing software," says Bill Ward, president of Bricks by the Bay. "And I'm a software engineer by trade, but I grew up, as a kid, building LEGO models instead of developing software."

Programmer Steve Putz founded Robotics Learning to teach thousands of kids as young as eighth graders to program robots that play soccer.

Attendee Yan Guo's daughter learned on her own. "The interface is very kid-friendly. It's really easy," she says. "Do you program?" we asked. "No!", she laughed.

So, is this a toy or a technology? "It's both for me," says White. "I discovered LEGOs in my early fifties. I was trying to teach myself object-oriented programming, and I was bored."

"It's whatever you want it to be," Ward says. "It can be a toy, it can be a a technology, it can be a tool, it can be an art form."

Next year, the theme for this event is LEGO Technologies.


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