Talking about Boost In Billund: Interview with Carl Merriam

Meeting LEGO Boost

Since it was announced at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, LEGO® Boost has been anticipated as an easy to use robotics platform. Designed for use by children aged 7 and up, the tablet based system was released in most of the world at the start of August, and made its way into the Australian retail Channels in October 2017.  With a retail price of $AU250, and 845 elements, including a mixture of System and Technic elements, as well as a new integrated Move Hub, I was intrigued by what it might have to offer for easy MOC automation.  At the LEGO® Fan Media Days in Billund this year, I had the opportunity to meet with Carl Merriam, one of the model designers who has been involved with LEGO Boost. We had a talk about some of the features of the Boost system, and looked at what some of the included models have to offer.

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Thanks for your time Carl, could you perhaps start by explaining a little about the basics of LEGO Boost?IMG_7719

CM: These are the three new elements that we have for LEGO Boost: This is the Move Hub: it has two input/output ports, 2 independent servomotors  with rotation sensors- you can specify the turn, or the number of degrees.   It also has a  (6 axis) tilt sensor built in. It’s Bluetooth controlled through an app on a tablet.

With LEGO Mindstorms, you write the code on your device and upload it onto the NXT/EV3 Brick. The program can then run independently of the device. It that the same with Boost? Or is ongoing connection with the tablet required?

All of the programming is within the tablet. The hub has a Bluetooth controller, and the tablet sends commands to the controller, to make it do things. You don’t download your program into the Boost Hub: You write your program on the tablet, press play on the tablet, and that will run the program, and control the Move Hub.

Are there any other components?

So, along with the Move Hub, we also have this multi sensor. It’s a distance, light and colour sensor.

Does it light up as well?

The sensor contains an RGB LED, and there is another on the Move Hub.  There is also an external motor with a rotation sensor. Here are some connection cables. – this is a new connector, different to that used with Power Functions or Mindstorms.

I have seen that there are some base models with preprogrammed responses…

Would you like to seem them?

I’d love to!

At this point, Carl reaches for one of a couple of models he has on hand: this one is a robot. But first he shows me the tablet he has in his hands:

So this is the main app. It has a kind of a maker feel. Lets go with Vernie the Robot. The first job you have is to build the robot, and in between the stages you get to program him and play with him a little bit. It might take a couple of hours to build, and you probably don’t want to have to wait a couple of hours before coding it. The last thing you do with Vernie is build his hands.

Once you switch it on, it connects automatically. Now, why don’t you shake his hand?

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Meet Vernie… the first model you meet as you set to work with LEGO Boost.

Tentatively, I reach out and shake Vernie’s hand: “Hello” says a voice coming from the tablet controlling Vernie.

Whats made him respond to that? Is it from the motion sensor, or rotation sensor?

The response is actually based on the tilt sensor within the Boost Hub.

Are his arms attached to the motor at all?

No. Two channels go to power his treads and the other motor is attached to his head.

We look back to the App, and Carl points to a collection of colour icons across the bottom of the screen.

These are the programming model blocks that you get to work with. These are the simple ones: e.g. Go forward will take the robot forward approximately one wheel base length. These blocks have a collection of commands in, eg you have ‘move both treads’, by turning the wheels x degrees, and run forward. It also defines the acceleration and deceleration curves. You can work down to the ‘atomic level’, where you have a similar degree of control as you do with Mindstorms, once you have unlocked the other activities. This is controlled through a different activity window.

Carl demonstrates that Vernie has a number of accessories and activities: a microphone and bowtie for telling jokes; a shoulder mounted gun; a moustache and ‘police lights’ note – these do not actually light up. : these are all associated with different activities to help you become familiar with the interface.

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The Many Faces of Vernie…

Carl quickly demonstrates some simple programs. Vernie waits for me to wave my hand in front of his sensor, and the then he starts moving for a few seconds. Then he stops .

The Colour Scheme is essentially Medium Azur and Bright Orange with White and Black components.  There are also  a number of transparent elements to add a little variety to the mix. There are a few elements I have not seen before: They are mainly recolours of existing elements to the main colours used in the creative toolbox. The orange wings used for Vernie’s moustache look new to me, but no: I should have just bought more Chima sets.

What about those orange rubber studs that are used in Vernie’s treads? Are they new?

They are there to ensure the tracks get appropriate grip, so that the robot moves and turns the way you want, without slipping. They first appeared in the Nexo Knights Fortrex, but this is the first time that it has appears in bright orange. And yes, you have to put them all in your self.

IMG_7872I see Vernie has some facial responses: as the head turns, the eyebrows also move, because of the way they are connected: one motor turns the head, and part of this function is to raise or lower his eyebrows.

That’s really clever…

I know, its fun right. The most fun in the design process  is trying to make things that are wacky or goofy.

This whole thing feels a bit like Technical Sets when I was a kid: all bricks with holes in, before it went studless.

It’s half and half now.

Carl, what has been your primary involvement with LEGO Boost?

I have been involved in model design, building the physical stuff: I was the main driver for Frankie the cat. We had a puppy for a while, but I am more of a cat person.

Carl then starts to run me through Frankie’s features. It is apparent that he is extremely proud of his ‘baby’.

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Frankie the Cat, one of five models included in the Boost Creative Toolbox Kit.

The cat’s tail is connected by these gears, to one of the motors, allowing it to wag. Another channel is connected to his face, letting him look around, and another to the back legs, allowing him to stand up. He has, as all cats do, a little harmonica, that he can play, in response to the different colours of the instrument. As you move the harmonica in front of the colour sensor, different sounds come from the tablet.

You can also have him blow out the candle on the cake and … Then Frankie starts to sing happy birthday, in a most amusing way.

“He can sit up and down, and look around. You can make his tail move. The tilt sensor does a few things here: If you pick him up and hold him, maybe he likes it, and purrs. Then when you lie him down he starts to sleep. And… cats hate this…“ and, as Carl lifts the model up by the tail, Frankie cries out with a screech!

His face is so expressive, I love the way that he can look around:

That is one of the things I spent a lot of time on: making the eyes and ears all move in a way so that they are all linked together.

These mechanism are so simple and so effective, like the play functions on some of the sets in other themes..

We started out with a more human face, but it looked a bit too… weird and creepy. Part of the challenge with designing these models is to design the mechanisms to give them this level of fun.

Is there any talk of an adaptor to allow the use of Mindstorms or Power Functions elements?

Not at this time, as far as I know. This hardware is based on the educational WeDo platform – a consumer version essentially. The Move Hub is a little different.

There are minimal specs for the tablets you can use: Bluetooth is specifically the limiting factor. The Boost App will not run on a smartphone.

How do you get Boost to make sounds?

We have a sound recording block: you record sounds on your tablet, with some built in filters – monster, munchkin, really slow and low voice, and a robotic voice. The sound bite can be trimmed, and stored in a library. There is then a sound library block. This one is just cat sounds (At this point, Carl demonstrates the cat sound block within the app.): in fact we have 31 different cat sounds included in it. There are about 300 sounds in the libraries at this time.

However, sounds are played through the speaker in the tablet, rather than a speaker on board the Move Hub.

I’m not a Mindstorms or Technic builder: I’m a System builder: it’s a lot easier for me to build this into a model than to set up an EV-3, so this is appealing to me.

Indeed –my early steps into automation were with the blue motor brick that was available around the early to mid 70’s – you could put wheels into it initially and subsequently gears, but for 7 year old me, it was pretty amazing.

I have used the Move Hub to set up a car, and my son just keeps building these crazy things to go on top of it, and he is then able to make it do all sorts of things. In fact, there are also instructions included for a base for a walking creature and a vehicle’s wheel base, with the final design and program being up to the user.

If you are looking to customise a fair ground, you can have each motor running on a different program: for example run the ferris wheel for a few seconds, pause, and continue again, and keep repeating it, as long as the tablet is connected.

As an easy way to approach automation of a MOC, it appears to be both sophisticated and simple: Thank you for taking the time to explain it to us.

Over the next few weeks, I will be exploring the Boost: I think it has a lot to offer, not just from the point of view of learning coding, and teaching robots bad jokes (you will find out what I mean, don’t worry), but also to add a level of automation to your own creations.  What would you use it for? So why not subscribe to the blog, or follow us on Facebook to keep up with all the new posts.

In the mean time,

Play Well.

 

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