Book Review: The LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT Idea Book

October 02, 2007

In July 2006, Lego replaced its traditional programmable robotics kit based on Lego bricks with a newer version based on TECHNIC pieces. While this disappointed many fans who had a sizable investment in the older kit, it did allow more robust robots to be constructed and opened up avenues to newer, unique designs.

The idea behind Mindstorms NXT is to build a robot with moving parts using the pieces, attaching any of a variety of sensors for input and then using a central processing unit (called a brick) to control the sensors and drive the robot's reaction. All basic pieces are sold in a single kit.

The programming is done entirely using a variant of National Instruments' graphical LabVIEW programming language (which I worked on in the mid-90s) called NXT-G.

Mindstorms NXT represents the most accessible robotics kit available in the market today and the source of many hours of creative fun. It also has an array of excellent online documentation from a variety of sources. There is copious online help built into NXT-G as well.

Given this ecosystem, the new The LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT Idea Book: Design, Invent, and Build (No Starch Press) takes contributions from 11 authors and adopts a cookbook approach. The book briefly explains the basics to get you grounded in the material. But quickly thereafter, the book takes a leap to address intermediate builders. The assumption is that online resources will help bridge the gap. Its an approach that works.

Roughly a third of the Idea Book contains a number of tips and techniques for using the kit. The chapter on programming, for example, painstakingly points out that the challenges in using a graphical programming language. It points out common pitfalls and often used workarounds to overcome them. A brief chapter discusses the sensors and how to use them. There is also an excellent and timely chapter on using the NXT with Bluetooth.

The remaining two-thirds of the book (Part II) is dedicated to building eight robots of varying complexity. There are pictorial step-by-step instructions on how to construct the robot followed by a section on how to program each robot. Often there are some troubleshooting tips or a tail piece on how to enhance the robot.

All of the robots in the book seem engaging to build. There is a rock, scissors, paper-playing robot, another helps you take digital pictures using a standard camera, yet another simulates a crane with a grabber.

Which brings me to the one drawback in the book - the instructions on how to build. In all fairness, putting together Lego building instructions is a painstaking process to get right. In the book, the authors photograph the robot as it is built progressively from the same angle. As a differential between pictures, they list the parts used and the number of units of each part. It is up to the reader to figure out how the parts are used and where by scanning the two pictures.

This, I found to be a tedious exercise. Its not prohibitive in any way and my 8 year old son at one point built out one of the simpler robots and indicated that it was not too difficult.

The Idea Book is an excellent addition to your collection if you are a Lego Mindstorms builder. I would also recommend it to fans who show up at tournaments and are looking for a better understanding of Lego robot construction.

Aspi grew up in India and lives in Chicago. He is average at everything, except Math, at which he is terrible. He blogs on a variety of topics, including cricket.
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Deepti Lamba
October 2, 2007
10:12 AM

Aspi, where is the picture of your angel's robot?

It is up to the reader to figure out how the parts are used and where by scanning the two pictures.

That tells me it isn't an Reilly's book;)

October 2, 2007
10:22 AM

Hi Deepti, he had to take it apart to cannibalize parts for a Lego exhibition he is putting up at the local library. But he insists on sleeping with the book in his room.

October 2, 2007
10:48 AM

I'm not sure if we get this kit in India, but wish we did.

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