If I could envision a box of family fun, this would be pretty close to what I would imagine it to be. The Lego Mindstorms Droid Developer Kit is a seamless marriage of tactile exploration and computer enhancement. The computer component of the product does not get in they way of the building phase, but instead is used to enhance the overall experience.
When you first open the box, there is going to be a moment looking at the hundreds of small pieces where you wonder what the heck you have gotten into. I mean teams of scientists at laboratories around the world are tasked with building robots, not your everyday family person, and not a parent with several children to worry about.
In fact, I was so afraid of building a mutant creature that did not really do anything that I quickly enlisted the help of veteran GiN reviewer and self-proclaimed Lego expert Chris Richards to assemble the device that I would later review.
You see, I had it all backwards. The final product is cool, believe me. Anything that you can design to chase the cat away from the kitchen table is a wonderful device. And it comes with a ton of whizbang gadgets like the ability to detect light, which can be a trigger to starting or stopping a program. More than once I was given a laugh by placing the robot in the darkened testing lab just waiting for some of the already jumpy shooter reviewers to turn on the lights as the robot raced forward, spilling cheeze snacks in its wake.
But as I watched Richards put the device together I realized that process of building the robot was part of the fun.
For starters, the first thing you do – after you put the batteries in – is to build around the core of the unit, which is a surprisingly powerful little computer capable of working all the external sensors and driving both rudimentary and complex programs for the robot. The value of this is that right from the start the admittedly sparse beginning unit actually does something. This is both a cool thing to watch and a promise of things to come. As you put more and more Lego pieces onto the main unit, the capabilities increase until you have built a full robot.
Two dedicated hard-working professionals, or one novice and one self-proclaimed expert, can actually build the entire unit in a few hours. My advice however would be for a parent and child to gather together and take their time putting the device in place. If it takes several days, that is several days of true parent-and-child interactivity that even the best pure computer game can’t hope to offer.
The instruction book itself is cleverly designed to appeal to children of all ages. For the most part, there are absolutely no words in the book. There is no "Insert Tab A into slot Q over bar X" to slow you or your child down. The full color book simply has pictures that demonstrate how each piece fits onto the main unit. If you get stuck, the included CD-ROM will show interactively exactly how to build the robot. Here the computer is doing what it does best, using sight and sound to explain and teach, but it is smartly confined to a secondary role.
Eventually, if you followed the instructions, you will be able to build the popular R2-D2 droid from the Star Wars movies. The little Mindstorms guy looks like a pint-sized version of the movie robot, though a few more varied sounds from the unit might have helped to make the illusion more complete. Nevertheless, the sheer satisfaction of actually building a highly complex and fun electronic gadget with your children is going to be more valuable to both parent and child than giving them any new computer game. Every time a child sees the robot they are going to relive the joy of knowing that they, using their wits and skill, were able to create something truly amazing. Parents will simply remember the quality hours spent with their children.
But the fun does not end there. If you can stand to do it, you can disassemble your robot and build others, including a cute little droid named L-3GO. (Wonder why LEGO picked that name?)
There is however, a catch. But don’t worry, it’s a good one. Other than R2-D2 and L-3GO, there are not detailed instructions on how to build other robots. The CD-ROM gives clues and advice, but not specific instructions. The goal is to make you and your child Jedi Master Builders, meaning you can create programmable robots on the fly without intervention from an instruction booklet. Suddenly, you are free from all your crutches, even the computer and the booklet. Free to build. Free to program your creation. And free to spend countless hours with your child making ingenious creations, and teaching them to chase the cat, deliver cheeze snacks or simply patrol the kitchen floor.
In focus group testing, everyone over the age of three seemed to love the product. As long as your child is old enough to know not to put the extremely tiny pieces in their mouth, this product should be a big hit. And both boys and girls enjoy the product, though for different reasons. It’s simply hard to go wrong with this highly intelligent and well-thought-out product.