A Tabletop Star Wars Themed Lego Racer Game

When it comes to the title of undisputed king of the toy construction kit world, the Danes have it. Lego are ubiquitous in the toybox, and parents worldwide know the joy of stepping barefoot on a stray brick. Aside from the themed sets for youngsters and collectors, we see a lot of Lego in projects that make it to these pages. Sometimes they are from hardware hackers who’ve chosen Lego because they had some to hand or because of its utility, but at other times they come from the Lego community rather than the wider one.

Take the Star Racer from [Alexis Dos Santos] as an example of the former. It’s a table top racing game made entirely from Lego, and with control courtesy of Lego Mindstorms. It’s a real rolling road game, with a track made from five continuous belts of grey Lego sections, with obstacles attached to them. The Podracer slides from side to side at the front under user control, and the object is to avoid them as they come towards you at varying speed.

It’s a beautiful piece of work, and as well as the linked Flickr photographs it can be seen in the YouTube video below the break. The sticker says it’s a highly addictive game, and we’d be inclined not to disagree.

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Solving a Rubik’s Cube with Just Two Motors

We’ve all seen videos of Rubik’s cube champions who can solve the puzzle in less than 5 seconds. And there are cube-twisting robots that can solve the cube even faster, often in under a second. This Rubik’s cube solver is not one of those robots, but it’s still pretty cool.

The reason we like Dexter Industries’ “BricKuber” is not for its lightning speed — it takes a minute or two to solve the puzzle. What we like is the simplicity of the approach to manipulating the cube. Built from LEGO parts, including Mindstorms motors and a BrickPi controller, the BricKuber uses only two motors to work the cube. One motor powers a square turntable upon which the cube sits, while the other powers an arm that does double duty — it either clamps the cube so the turntable can rotate a layer, or it rakes the cube to flip it 90° on the turntable. With a Pi Cam overhead, the rig images all six faces, calculates a solution to the cube, and then flips and twists the cube to solve it. It’s simultaneously mind-boggling and strangely relaxing to watch.

All the code is open source, and we strongly suspect a similar and possibly faster robot could be built without the LEGO parts. You might even be able to build one with popsicle sticks and an Arduino.

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Mindstorms Forkliftbots Gonna Take Your Job

With every advance in robotics, we get closer to being able to order stuff from Amazon and have no human being participate in its delivery. Key step in this dream: warehouse robots, smart forklifts able to control and inventory and entire warehouse full of pallets, without the meat community getting involved. [Thomas Risager] designed just such a system as part of his Masters Thesis in Software Engineering. It consists of five LEGO Mindstorms robots working in concert (video embedded below), linked via WiFi to a central laptop. Mindstorms’ native OS doesn’t support WiFi (!!!) so he reflashed the EV3’s ARM9 chip with software developed using Java and running under LeJOS. On the laptop side [Thomas] wrote a C++ application that handles the coordination and routing of the forklifts. We can see a lot of weary forklift drivers ready to kick back and let a robot have the full-time job for a change.

The robots use WiFi to a central laptop. Mindstorms’ native OS doesn’t support WiFi (!!!) so [Thomas] reflashed the EV3’s ARM9 chip with software developed using Java and running under LeJOS. On the laptop side he wrote a C++ application that handles the coordination and routing of the forklifts. [Thomas] is sharing his forklift design.

Now to scale up — maybe with DIY forklifts like we published earlier? We can see a lot of weary forklift drivers ready to kick back and let a robot have the full-time job for a change.

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Mechanical Marvel Trades Courage for Chocolate

When we see what [Jason Allemann] does with LEGO, we wonder why more one-offs aren’t made this way. This time he’s made a Halloween mechanical marvel that will surely scare more kids than anything else they’ll encounter on their rounds — so much so that many may even decline the chocolate it dispenses. Who wouldn’t when to get it you have to reach over an animatronic skeleton hand that may grab you while a similarly mechanized spider may lunge onto your hand.

The chocolate dispensing, the hand and the spider are all animated using four motors, a LEGO Mindstorms EV3 brick to control them, and a touch sensor. When a kid presses a pumpkin attached to the touch sensor, the next chocolate candy is lowered by gravity onto a conveyor belt and carried forward to the awaiting child. That much is automatic. At the discretion of [Jason] and his partner [Kristal], using an infrared remote control and sensor, they can activate the skeleton hand and the lunging spider at just the right moment. We’re just not sure who they’ll choose to spare. It is Halloween after all, and being scared is part of the fun, so maybe spare no one? Check out the video below and tell us if you’d prefer just the treat, or both the trick and treat.

We do have to wonder if there’s any project that can’t benefit from LEGO products, even if only at the prototype stage or to help visualize an idea. As a small sample, [Jason]’s also made a remote-controlled monowheel and an actual working printer along with a Morse key telegraph machine to send it something to print.

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LEGO-compatible Electronics Kits Everywhere!

Within the last few years, a lot of companies have started with the aim to disrupt the educational electronics industry using their LEGO-compatible sets. Now they’re ubiquitous, and fighting each other for their slice of space in your child’s box of bricks. What’s going on here?

Raison D’Être

The main reason for LEGO-compatibility is familiarity. Parents and children get LEGO. They have used it. They already have a bunch. When it comes to leveling up and learning about electronics, it makes sense to do that by adding on to a thing they already know and understand, and it means they can continue to play with and get more use from their existing sets. The parent choosing between something that’s LEGO-compatible and a completely separate ecosystem like littleBits (or Capsela) sees having to set aside all the LEGO and buy all new plastic parts and learn the new ecosystem, which is a significant re-investment. littleBits eventually caught on and started offering adapter plates, and that fact demonstrates how much demand there is to stick with the studs.

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LEGO Looper Makes Modular Music

This LEGO synth made by [Rare Beasts] had us grinning from ear to ear.

It combines elements from LEGO Mindstorms with regular blocks in order to make music with color. A different music sample is assigned to each of five colors: red, blue, green, yellow, and white. The blocks are attached to spokes coming off of a wheel made with NXT an EV3. As the wheel turns, the blocks pass in front of a fixed color sensor that reads the color and plays the corresponding sample. The samples are different lengths, so changing the speed of the wheel makes for some interesting musical effects.

As you’ll see in the short video after the break, [Rare Beasts] starts the wheel moving slowly to demonstrate the system. Since the whole thing is made of LEGO, the blocks are totally modular. Removing a few of them here and there inserts rests into the music, which makes the result that much more complex.

LEGO is quite versatile, and that extends beyond playtime. It can be used to automate laboratory tasks, braid rope, or even simulate a nuclear reactor. What amazing creations have you made with it? Let us know in the comments.

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Eye-Controlled Wheelchair Advances from Talented Teenage Hackers

[Myrijam Stoetzer] and her friend [Paul Foltin], 14 and 15 years old kids from Duisburg, Germany are working on a eye movement controller wheel chair. They were inspired by the Eyewriter Project which we’ve been following for a long time. Eyewriter was built for Tony Quan a.k.a Tempt1 by his friends. In 2003, Tempt1 was diagnosed with the degenerative nerve disorder ALS  and is now fully paralyzed except for his eyes, but has been able to use the EyeWriter to continue his art.

This is their first big leap moving up from Lego Mindstorms. The eye tracker part consists of a safety glass frame, a regular webcam, and IR SMD LEDs. They removed the IR blocking filter from the webcam to make it work in all lighting conditions. The image processing is handled by an Odroid U3 – a compact, low cost ARM Quad Core SBC capable of running Ubuntu, Android, and other Linux OS systems. They initially tried the Raspberry Pi which managed to do just about 3fps, compared to 13~15fps from the Odroid. The code is written in Python and uses OpenCV libraries. They are learning Python on the go. An Arduino is used to control the motor via an H-bridge controller, and also to calibrate the eye tracker. Potentiometers connected to the Arduino’s analog ports allow adjusting the tracker to individual requirements.

The web cam video stream is filtered to obtain the pupil position, and this is compared to four presets for forward, reverse, left and right. The presets can be adjusted using the potentiometers. An enable switch, manually activated at present is used to ensure the wheel chair moves only when commanded. Their plan is to later replace this switch with tongue activation or maybe cheek muscle twitch detection.

First tests were on a small mockup robotic platform. After winning a local competition, they bought a second-hand wheel chair and started all over again. This time, they tried the Raspberry Pi 2 model B, and it was able to work at about 8~9fps. Not as well as the Odroid, but at half the cost, it seemed like a workable solution since their aim is to make it as cheap as possible. They would appreciate receiving any help to improve the performance – maybe improving their code or utilising all the four cores more efficiently. For the bigger wheelchair, they used recycled car windshield wiper motors and some relays to switch them. They also used a 3D printer to print an enclosure for the camera and wheels to help turn the wheelchair. Further details are also available on [Myrijam]’s blog. They documented their build (German, pdf) and have their sights set on the German National Science Fair. The team is working on English translation of the documentation and will release all design files and source code under a CC by NC license soon.