Video: Toys for Bored Kids

School holidays start next week, so I’m taking a look at a bunch of different toys and gadgets that should keep bored kids happy for a few days.

Click below for video:

Item: LEGO Games (available at all good toy stores)
Price: From $25
Rating: 5 / 5
Info: Two toys in one! First you get to build the game board, then you get to play the game. The new LEGO games are original and fun. Each game has simple rules to follow, and provides hours of fun for 2-8 players (depending in the game). My favourite for a quick fun game is Minotaurus, but if you’re a great LEGO designer you’ll love Creationary: like Pictionary, but you have to build the “clue” with LEGO.
Item: Sea Monkeys
Price: $29.99 for the basic pack
Rating: 3 / 5
Info: An absolute classic. I remember reading about Sea Monkeys on the back of Commando comics when I was a small boy. I’m sure the reality is less exciting than the idea, but these things actually do grow up to be little brine shrimp. An easy first pet for any child. For a wee bit more ($34.99) you can get the Grow and Show kit, which includes a watch or locket to carry your Sea Monkeys in.
Item: Glow Crazy (available soon from Whitcoulls, Toyworld, and other toy stores)
Price: $64.99
Rating: 5 / 5
Info: Write on the walls without worrying tonight. Glow Crazy uses an invisible laser to write on glowing cling-film, or any other glow-in-the-dark object. It works incredibly well in a dim room, and comes with stencils so you can easily draw shapes and pictures.

Video: Robots and Tinkering

Here are the items I reviewed on TVNZ this morning. Click the image for the video.

Video robots Lego

Item: “Klutz” Science Books
Price:Various (generally $30-$40)
Rating: 4 / 5

Info: If you have a budding young scientist who is perhaps a bit too junior to be holding a soldering iron, books like the Klutz range are a great intro. The books come with a bunch of items on the front cover, from which you can build cars, boats or other mechanical contraptions. While doing so, the book will tell you about how batteries work, or perhaps how solar power and motors work. Sometimes they are a little expensive, but if you can grab one on special, put it away for a rainy weekend or holiday.

Item: Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0
Price: $499 – Available in September from Toyworld and Lego stockists
Rating: 4 / 5

Info: Mindstorms NXT 2.0 is the third iteration of Lego’s robotics kitset, and the second version of their NXT range. They’ve pretty much perfected the kit this time around. The addition of a colour sensor and a range of coloured balls creates huge scope for building interactive robots. The provided software is fantastically easy to use, and the kit robots are great fun to play with. You don’t need to know a line of code to make the robots behave, yet you’ll find the process will teach budding developers all about loops and parameters, and also a good deal of debugging and testing.
The box says “10+”, but a savvy six year old will enjoy building the robots with help, and a 10 year old should be able to code some basic behaviour. Of course most 35 year old kids will also hugely enjoy the kit.
My only complaint would be the price, with $500 making this close to the most expensive Lego set money can buy.

Item: Arduino Duemilanove Starter Kit
Price: $99.95
Rating: 5 / 5

Info: When you run out of things that the Lego Mindstorms robots can do, switch over to “real” programming on an Arduino. The Duemilanove is a great starter board, with heaps of inputs and outputs. If you know some very basic programming concepts, you can have a bunch of lights flashing within minutes. Then grab some components and let your imagination run wild. How about a plant pot that posts to Facebook when it needs watering, or a completely autonomous radio control plane? All do-able with an Arduino and some extra bits.

Review: Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0

Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0Back when we had two incomes, no mortgage, and no kids, I found it scarily easy to succumb to the attraction of the original Lego Robotics Invention System. It was quite the achievement at the time: two motors, a bunch of basic sensors, and a whole heap of Technics. The software was barely stable, but if you worked at it you could create a line-following robot or perhaps a humanoid that could take a couple of steps before toppling over.

Since then, Lego have revised their robotics kit completely with the original NXT, and are now set to release the Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0 kit. The kit will be available in New Zealand from September, with a retail price of $499, unless you can grab it in a Toyworld sale. So what do you get for your money?

  • The NXT 2.0 “brick”. This is the nerve-center of the kit. A chunky brick that takes 6 AA batteries. It has three motor outputs and four sensor inputs. It connects to your PC via USB or Bluetooth to receive program updates, and can talk to other NXT bricks via Bluetooth too.
  • The NXT 2.0 software for your PC or Mac. This is what you’ll use to program your NXT brick. Don’t think of it as esoteric code with FOR loops and semicolons. Everything is done via drag-and-drop. Blocks for turning motors on and off, sensing colour, and playing sounds all slot together as easily as physical Lego blocks.
  • Three honest-to-goodness servomotors (I’m not positive, but I don’t believe they are stepper motors – can anyone inform me otherwise?). In the old days you had to turn the motors on for a predetermined time, and just pray that they ran at the right speed for the right number of rotations. The NXT kits use feedback to determine how far the motor has turned, so you can command them to turn 90 degrees, or 4 rotations, and they’ll do just that (or churn through batteries trying to).
  • Two touch sensors – just basic momentary switches as far as I can tell.
  • One ultrasonic distance sensor, designed to look uncannily like a pair of robot eyes.
  • One colour sensor (including a tri-colour LED lamp). This was the only real issue I had with the kit: the colour sensor didn’t work so well in bright sunlight. It worked fine at night or indoors in the shade.
  • A metric vatload of technics parts. I’m not going to list them all here, but serious Lego geeks can check out a comparison of NXT 2.0 parts vs the previous version, or a complete breakdown of parts in the kit.

Continue reading “Review: Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0”

Coming Up: Giveaways and Mindstorms

Mindstorms NXTIt’s been a bit ungadgety around here lately, but never fear! I’ve got some cool stuff coming up in the next couple of weeks:

  • Reviewing the new Lego Mindstorms NXT 2.0 kit.
  • Reviewing the Arduino starter kit from
  • Giving away an LG HFB-500 Bluetooth hands-free kit
  • Noisy and fast gadgets for Fathers’ day.
  • A new daughter.
  • …and more.

On the personal front, I’m speaking at the PRiNZ Northern networking event tonight, and attending Vodafone’s mid-winter christmas dinner on Friday. It’s a hard life!

Also, a quick plug for my wonderful employers, who are trucking along having yet another incredible year.

Microsoft Robotics Studio

Microsoft Robotics Studio simulator Microsoft’s hobby/game development weblog Coding4Fun has just announced the release of Microsoft Robotics Studio.  Designed to work with robotics kits like the Lego Mindstorms NXT, Robotics Studio looks like a pretty powerful toolset to get your robots running.

If you don’t have a robot kit but still want to play, Microsoft Robotics Studio includes a pretty powerful simulation environment so you can still play around.

As an owner of the original Mindstorms kit (gathering dust unfortunately), I’ve had a keen eye on the new NXT system, and this robotics studio may just push me over the edge…

[tags]robotics, lego, microsoft, NXT[/tags]