“Bricking” Microcontrollers in LEGO Motivates Young Programmers

Back when he was about seven years old, [Ytai] learned to program on an Atari 800XL. Now he has a seven-year-old of his own and wants to spark his interest in programming, so he created these programmable LEGO bricks with tiny embedded microcontrollers. This is probably one of the few times that “bricking” a microcontroller is a good thing!

IMG_20150519_144818The core of the project is the Espruino Pico microcontroller which has the interesting feature of running a Java stack in a very tiny package. The Blocky IDE is very simple as well, and doesn’t bog users down in syntax (which can be discouraging to new programmers, especially when they’re not even a decade old). The bricks that [Ytai] made include a servo motor with bricks on the body and the arm, some LEDs integrated into Technic bricks, and a few pushbutton bricks.

We always like seeing projects that are geared at getting kids interested in creating, programming, and hacking, and this certainly does that! [Ytai] has plans for a few more LEGO-based projects to help keep his kid interested in programming as well, and we look forward to seeing those! If you’re looking for other ways to spark the curiosity of the youths, be sure to check out the Microbot, or if you know some teens that need some direction, perhaps these battlebots are more your style.

Life Sized Lego Spaceship Parts

Ah, 1980s space Lego sets. You may think the pirate ship and castle sets are cooler, but you’re wrong, because spaceship. spaceship. spaceship.

These space Lego sets had some very interesting parts, with tiny two-by sloped pieces printed with Lego analogs of computers, monitors, phones, intercoms, speakers, control panels, and everything else that makes a voxellated spaceship fly to the moon. Now, these pieces are functional, and they’re nearly life-size.

[Love Hultén] took these fantastic parts, modeled them, and scaled them up to six times normal Lego dimensions. These blocks were then fitted with buttons, displays, the guts of an old telephone, and all the other accoutrements to make these bricks functional. Two computer blocks can be connected together, and it will play video games with a Lego-shaped controller. The intercom works, and the buttons on control panels can be used to turn on lights.

It should be noted the Lego family is more than just the small bricks that really hurt when you step on them. Duplo, the blocks made for children who would stuff Lego down their own throats, is twice the size of Lego. Quatro are blocks made for toddlers, and are twice the size of Duplo and four times the size of Lego. Since [Love] made blocks that are six times the size of normal Lego blocks, we’ll leave it up to the comments to determine what this class of blocks should be named.

Video below.

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Lego Flip-dot Display

We don’t need to mention that flip-dot displays are awesome. They use no power except in transitions, are visible on even the brightest of days, and have a bit of that old-school charm. So then it stands to reason that the flip-dot display that [AncientJames] made out of LEGO is awesome-plus. Heck, it even spells out “awesome”.

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LEGO Computer Case

With over 40,000 pieces in his possession, [Mike] is definitely a huge fan of LEGO. Given that he’s also very much a fan of technology, it’s no surprise that he has built more than one type of LEGO computer case. He wrote in to tell us that he’s finished work on a well-rounded system designed for everyone.

[Mike] is no stranger to interesting case builds. In the last couple of years, he’s also made a functioning wind tunnel case and a bio computer that uses generated heat to warm soil for wheat grass plants. In the course of planning the LEGO computer, he thought a lot about heat and airflow, ultimately deciding on a top-down cooling path.

He’s quoting custom LEGO computer builds, providing the choice between an i3, i5, or i7 with either 8 or 16 gigs of RAM. They will run Linux or Windows 7/8 and are 10-compatible. There are a few choices for the top of the case: classic LEGO brick, the industrial look with diagonal slats, and a colored, tiled top. These systems are completely upgradeable and are held firmly together with great engineering and the occasional support rod.

DIY Oscilloscope with a Scanning Laser

If you’ve ever used an old-school analog oscilloscope (an experience everyone should have!) you probably noticed that the trace is simply drawn by a beam that scans across the CRT at a constant rate, creating a straight line when there’s no signal. The input signal simply affects the y-component of the beam, deflecting it into the shape of your waveform. [Steve] wrote in to let us know about his home-built “oscilloscope” that works a lot like a simple analog oscilloscope, albeit with a laser instead of  a CRT.

[Steve]’s scope is built out of a hodgepodge of parts including Lego, an Erector set, LittleBits, and a Kano Computer (based on a Raspberry Pi). The Pi generates a PWM signal that controls the speed of a LittleBits motor. The motor is hooked up to a spinning mirror that sweeps the laser across some graph paper, creating a straight laser line.

After he got his sweep working, [Steve] took a small speaker and mounted a mirror to its cone. Next he mounted the speaker so the laser’s beam hits the mirror on the speaker, the spinning sweep mirror, and finally the graph paper display. The scope’s input signal (in this case, audio from a phone) is fed into the speaker which deflects the laser beam up and down as it is swept across the paper, forming a nice oscilloscope-like trace.

While [Steve]’s scope might not be incredibly usable in most cases, it’s still a great proof of concept and a good way to learn how old oscilloscopes work. Check out the video after the break to see the laser scope in action.

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Measuring the Planck Constant With Lego

For nearly 130 years, the kilogram has been defined by a small platinum and iridium cylinder sitting in a vault outside Paris. Every other unit of measurement is defined by reproducible physical phenomenon; the second is a precise number of oscillations of a cesium atom, and a meter is the length light travels in 1/299792458th of a second. Only the kilogram is defined by an actual object, until NIST and the International Committee of Weights and Measures defines it as a function of the Planck constant. How do you measure the Planck constant? With a Watt balance. How do you build a Watt balance? With Lego, of course.

A Watt balance looks like a double-armed scale where one weight can be compared to another weight of known mass. Instead of using two arms, a Watt balance only has one arm, brought into balance by a current flowing through a coil. The mechanical power in the balance – brought about by whatever is on the balance plate – can then be compared to the electrical power, and eventually the Planck constant. This will soon be part of the formal definition of the kilogram, and yes, a machine to measure this can be made out of Lego.

The only major non-Lego parts in the Lego Watt balance are a few coils of wire wound around a PVC pipe and a few neodymium magnets. These are placed on both arms of the balance, and a pair of lasers are used to make sure both arms of the balance are level. Data are collected by measuring the coils through a few analog pins on a Labjack and a Phidget. Once the voltage and current induced in each coil is measured, the Wattage can be calculated, then the Planck constant, and finally how close the mass on the balance pan is to a real, idealized kilogram. Despite being made out of Lego, this system can measure a gram mass to 1% uncertainty.

The authors have included a list of Lego parts, most of which could be found in any giant tub of Lego in an 8-year-old’s closet. The only really expensive item on the BOM is a 16-bit USB DAQ; apart from that, it’s something anyone can build.

Thanks [Matt] for the tip.

Developing Film With Lego

Developing film at home is most certainly a nearly forgotten art nowadays, but there are still a few very dedicated people who care enough to put in the time and study to this craft. [Jan] is one of the exceptional ones. He’s developing 35mm film with Lego (Dutch, Google translate).

For the build, [Jan] is using the Lego RCX 1.0, the first gen of the Lego Mindstorms, released in the late 90s. According to eBay, this is a significantly cheaper option for programmable Lego. The mechanics of the Lego film developer consisted of multiple tanks of chemicals. The film was loaded on a reel, suspended from a Lego gantry, and dunked into each tank for a specific amount of time.

A second revision of the hardware (translate) was designed, with the film loaded into a rotating cylinder. A series of chemicals would then be pumped into this unit with the hope of reducing the amount of chemicals required. This system was eventually built using the wiper fluid pump from a car. Apparently, the system worked well, judging from the pictures developed with this system. Whether it was easy or efficient is another matter entirely.

You can check out a video of the first revision of the Lego film developing system below.

Thanks [Andrew] for sending this in.

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