Beginning with Boost I: Meet Vernie

In which I recall making models move in simpler times, invest in a LEGO Boost Creative Toolbox set, and set about meeting Vernie the robot.  This article is as much for the beginner, trying to understand where to look for information, and finding out what my personal experience was like with the first couple of models.  In the future I will build some more, and look at the programs involved along the way.

One of the amazing things about LEGO® bricks is that they can be used to construct the most amazing models.  One of the things that lifts LEGO models to the the next level is movement.  For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the idea of making my LEGO models move.  I just haven’t been particularly good at it!

My first experience with making LEGO move autonomously was using the blue 4.5V motor in the mid 70’s: part of set 100 or 112: to be honest, I am not really sure.  I was probably about five years old at the time.  But being able to make my LEGO crawl across the living room table was pretty amazing.

As life progressed, I graduated to the 181 train set: a black motor brick, with a dedicated battery box in the tender, running behind the engine. There was an additional switch below the battery box, which allowed a raised railway signal to stop the train. Somewhere along the road we found some coloured gears, and simple motorised machines became an option. Then came the Technical sets, with their single drive shaft motor, and optional gearing boxes. I have already written about these early Technic experiences this year.

However, before I could around to exploring monorails, 12V or 9V trains,  I entered my dark ages.  I emerged just as the Power Functions elements were being introduced, along with NXT.  I probably found the Power Functions a little easier to use than NXT, or subsequently EV3, primarily because the construction techniques for Technic – with the square profile beams – perplexed me.  To be honest, they still do.  Turning a  single wheel by myself is something I can deal with.  Having a motor do it for me is extremely appealing.

So, when I heard about LEGO Boost, I became quite excited.  LEGO Boost is a brick based (rather than Technic) robotics system with 3 independent motor channels, as well as a light and distance sensor brick, and an inbuilt tilt sensor, designed to be programmed by a 7 year old with some form of tablet device. Perhaps this would be something I could use in the not too distant future to motorise my models, or introduce a level of interactivity into them.

So I bided my time.  Information regarding the commercial release of Boost in Australia was not forthcoming, so we sat and waited.

I first experienced Boost during the LEGO Fan Media Days in June 2017. Carl Merriam, one of the model designers, demonstrated some of the models and answered some of my questions about what was going to be required.  Boost was released to most of the world in August 2017, and arrived in Australia in October 2017.  It is dependent on an app, running on a capable tablet, to be of any significant use.  Otherwise you have just $250 on a paperweight and some additional elements.  Fortunately, the App has been available since the global release in the Apple App Store, as well as the Google Play store, and was available in Australia before the set was. I hope this is the case in all markets, but I notice that A Chinese language version is due to be released early 2018.

What do I need to make it work?

The simple answer is ‘a compatible tablet’ and some batteries. That first part is a little harder to define. The tablet must run with low power Bluetooth 4.1.  iOS devices must be able to run iOS 10.3 or higher, and Android tablets must have an 8 inch screen, Android OS 5.0 or higher, and a 1.4 Dual core processor or higher.  Amazon Kindle fire devices are also compatible.  There is an official compatibility guide here, however the unofficially compatible list is probably a bit longer.

One of the reasons you require the tablet is area of screen real estate to be able run the app – coding takes up valuable screen space, as do windows for instructions.  I suspect, given the ‘Only the Best is Good Enough’ philosophy, the difficulty in providing an easy to use, rapidly responsive system means that we are unlikely to see a regular smartphone supported in the near future.  The Boost Move Hub, which contains the Bluetooth receiver, is dependent on the device running the app to be controlling the system (there are no programs loaded up into the models themselves).  Having the phone ring, and stop the child from being able to continue to play with their model could be considered an adequate reason for not pursuing official development of the platform.

Of course, this does not mean that people have not tried, and there are now multiple alternative platforms for programming or controlling your Boost, be it using a smartphone or laptop with an alternative programming environment such as Scratch.  This is beyond the scope of my expertise, and I will not attempt to include it further in the discussion. However, if you look, I suspect you will find things.

The building instructions for the models are presented through the app, however if app based construction is not for you, you can download the pdf instructions for each model here – look in the FAQs for building instructions.

Suffice to say, the Boost experience, which interrupts the construction aspects of the models to includes tutorials in coding, requires the use of a supported tablet running the LEGO Boost App.

What’s in the Box?

IMG_7694The box contains a poster, a ‘mission mat’ to run your robot on, as well as 14 bags of elements. The closest thing to instructions that you receive are on the back of the poster: insert 6 AAA batteries, run the App, and press the button on the Move Hub.

The bags are numbered for the purpose of constructing Vernie the robot: each numbered bag appears in order to build up each aspect of this happy little robot.  Every couple of bags we take a little time out to do some programming exercises.

There are 850 elements, including the specific Boost Elements: The Move Hub, the servo Motor, the sensory brick and the required cables.  The cable connections are different to those used in either Power Functions or Mindstorms sets to date, but are similar to those used in the WeDo 2.0 educational robotics platform.

And parts, lots of parts.  The bulk of the elements are system parts, but there are a selection of Technic gears and pins and well as the bricks with holes in that we were familiar with in the early days of Technic (40 years ago…). The colour palette is predominantly Bright Orange( orange) and Medium Azur(medium azure) and white.  There are a selection of transparent blue elements, as well as black and light stone grey.

And so it begins.

I fire up the app on my iPad and after an opening splash screen am presented with a picture of an animated workroom. Joyful music starts playing. I suspect it will wear me down after a while.

Before starting work on Vernie, we build a simple wheeled platform to demonstrate the ease with which a motorised vehicle can be put together and programmed. I have a wheeled hub, with the other moot on top of it.  I ask it to move, and to does.  It even turns. Much Joy. Achievement unlocked.

And now for Vernie.

Vernie is the hero model for Boost: an anthropomorphic robot on tracks, Vernie is so important as a starter model for BOOST that the bags are numbered in order that they are required for building him.  The build was a little longer than I initially expected: probably 3 hours from start to finish, taking time out every few bags to run through some of the coding examples that you are encouraged to do.

As discussed by Carl Merriam, one of the Boost Designers, the goal here is to give the children building the model the chance to experiment with the tablet and Move-Hub early in the process, and get some results.  Important tips for beginners include making sure the sound on your tablet is turned on (and loud enough), as all sounds produced use the tablet’s speaker.  You cannot progress with the in-App building instructions until you have at least pretended to try out some of the coding ideas present. If you would rather build from a manual, you can down load it here.

Bag by Bag, Vernie gets built up: Torso, head, tracks, arms, hands and fashion accessories. You know, like sunglasses, a bow-tie and a microphone. Because any good robot needs to be able to do standup comedy.

Once Vernie has his head, he is ready to talk, and has a bit to say, but not just in an audible way.  His head is attached to a turntable, and as the head turns, there is a mechanism that results in the eyebrows moving, in proportion to the rotation, as well as a tilting of the head.  He comes across as sympathetic to my plight as his builder, and encourages me to keep building. A particularly clever approach taken with Vernie’s head movements, with an extended rotation to the left firing the rubber tipped bullet

There are a few interesting SNOT techniques, as well as the mechanics behind the eyebrows.  The other ‘New to me’ construction trick was using the large radar dishes as the front, non driving wheels.  The dishes are opposing each other, and the sprocket mechanism of the track runs between these dishes, while being driven by wheels powered by the hub.

The colour blocking also works really well: while the colour palette is limited,  the instructions are designed so that the majority of adjacent parts are in contrasting colours, which makes for a better experience when working with the aid of a tablet screen for construction.  It made it much harder to position a piece one or two studs out of line.  I really appreciated this feature as I built this first model.

I found that it took me about three or four hours to build Vernie, and work through about half of the coding examples.

Once Vernie is put together, there are a number of accessories for hime to dress up in and play with.

IMG_7838
The many faces of Vernie…

Coding:

Each stage of construction with Vernie has a number of activities. These give an overview of coding, as well as serving to break up construction.

Programming is relatively simple – using a drag and drop approach for the different programming blocks.  Different coloured blocks have a different role:

vernie command
Yellow: Flow
Orange: Sensor
Green: Motor
Purple: Sound and Light
Turquoise: Interaction
White: Maths

It is easy enough to get Vernie to wait for a trigger, and then continue along a given path, such as the infamous ‘pull my finger’ program, giving a brief insight into use of tilt sensor as a trigger for a subsequent event..

IMG_0401

The exercises give a great overview of many of the coding blocks.  Having completed these exercises, I felt confident with setting up basic programs, but there are some things I need more confidence to develop – particularly scanning for distance and colors. These blocks are likely to get further development on other models, especially Frankie the Cat, and the Guitar model.

Packing up

Vernie is a great introductory model, but while he is easy to put together, with elements in a bag per step, perhaps some care needs to be taken while dismantling him.  I highly recommend keeping the Boost elements separate from the rest of your collection, especially if you are intending to put together the other models.

To this end, I went to my local hardware shop, and picked up some plastic containers.  I could have done better, but am pretty happy with how I have it sorted.  This sorting system works for me, but we all have our little ways. I will probably refine it as

A hint of the possibilities.

While there are five main models included in Boost, there are also two starter platforms included: click on the canvas and you find a portal ( Just how many portals are there in the LEGO Universe???).  Chasing down this rabbit hole we find a walker platform, and a steering vehicle platform; both just waiting to see what you might choose to add on top.Here, you can also see that you get a randomly assigned name and icon to go with your projects that you may wish to save.  So why not begin with a rainbow unicorn…

 

I have only begun to scratch the surface with LEGO Boost.  The coding exercises encourage experimentation, and are simple to complete. If you are looking to create a model that is open to user interaction, then Boost is a great place to start. With a wide variety of elements, both Technic and System, this is a great set for starting your LEGO Collection.  You may not like the tablet restrictions, and it may be a bit tedious to work through all of the examples, but if you persevere, over time you will develop a good idea of how the coding elements work together. One of things to consider when purchasing Boost might be a set of separate sorting boxes, if you wish to keep the elements together.

Vernie is a great Hero Model, and launching pad for the platform.  His anthropomorphic appearance, as well as his sartorial splendour and sense of humour make him a great starting point for your Boost Adventure. The app is simple to drive and navigate, and the music it generates reminds me of some great 90’s gaming experiences such as LucasArts’ “Sam and Max Hit the Road”

I am looking forward to visiting some of the other models in the near future, and will present some of their interesting features here. For further information, there are a number of Facebook groups and communities dealing with LEGO Boost, as well as additional information available from the LEGO Boost FAQ Page.

What do you think of LEGO Boost?  What would be your ‘Ultimate Boost MOC? Is it on your Christmas list? Why not leave a comment below, and follow Rambing Brick for future articles.

Until next time,

Play Well!

 

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