A Man’s Got to Know His Limitations: Control+ and Powered Up Apps [August 2019]

The New Technic Smart hub became available this week, as part of 42099 X-treme 4×4 Off Roader. This article discusses what we can expect the long awaited Control+ App to do and what it won’t. I also take a look at the ever expanding range of connected apps produced by LEGO A/S today.

The first of August has past and there have been a number of new, released. If you are a Technic Fan, you are possibly curious about the new 4×4 X-treme Off Roader 42099. Certainly, it’s one I have been looking forward to seeing.

I had an opportunity to see this new model, as well as the new Control+ App demonstrated by members of the design team while in Billund, at the Recognised Fan Media days in May this year. Amongst other things, the set features the new Technic Smart Hub, 2 new Technic XL linear motors, and one Technic L linear motor. I am excited to get my hands on this set as soon as possible, to build the set and experience the new Control+ App. I might have to wait until the Australian online store gets more stock.

I also hope to incorporate the new Control+ Hub in a MOC later in the year.

But Not today.

The new 4×4 X-treme Off roader looks great, and works fairly well by all accounts (look for my review at some point in the next month or two…I just need to get it first). And the Control+ App does a great job in providing control over the model. As a set, or even a remote control car kit, it looks pretty nifty. And this set will be just what many customers are looking for.

Some of the new elements seen in 42099: X-Streme 4×4 Off-roader, including the Technic Smart Hub; Technic XL Smart Motor, Technic L Smart Motor and a new ‘Planetary gear’ – incorporated in the wheel hub of the new model

There will be some people, myself included, who have been waiting for the new motors and hub to become available so they can experiment with it, or incorporate it in their own models. But we cannot, at least not today.

In conversation with the Technic Team at the Fan Media Days in Billund, I was told that the Control+ app would be the only way to access the new Technic Smart Hub on Day One. Further control of individual elements attached to the Technic Smart Hub, will follow ‘in the future.’ Unfortunately this definition of ‘the future’ has not yet been clearly defined.

At the Fan Media days, I had to the chance to clarify the roles of the Apps working with the Powered up Platform, with both the Technic and the Product Technology Team, as well as gaining some insight into the future pathways for the development of the platform. [some information has been updated in the intervening months]

Powered Up is the name given to the current range of LEGO® electronic hardware, released over the last few years. It includes motors, sensors, hubs and a remote control, all linked by a common Bluetooth Protocol. It refers to a platform – used across the range of LEGO sets: already we see sets from LEGO City, Superheroes, DUPLO, Education (WeDo and the forthcoming Spike Prime), Boost and Star Wars, as well as this new Technic set, incorporating these electronic elements.

As Powered Up is not a ‘theme’ or line as such: they do not release sets, but provide support for the themes looking for a way to provide powered movement and automation to their models. No new elements developed for the platform can are released without a ‘Launch Set’ – subsequent to this, however, all elements have become available, in most markets (although the Simple linear M motor – featured in the Batmobile is not available through Shop.lego.com in Australia. Go figure. Feel free to write to customer service if you feel this is not a good situation.) LEGO recently updated its retail site, and the powered up elements and sets now have their own page.

TODAY, I would like to look at the state of play of the APP landscape involved in controlling the Powered Up Hardware.

Control+ App V1.0

The new Control+ App is seen as a companion to the Technic models incorporating the new Technic Smart hub, as well as the Technic L and XL Smart Motors. It is not designed to control your own models.

As well as allowing a compatible tablet or smartphone to act as a remote control for the model, it also provides a series of navigational challenges. At present, you cannot program sequences of movements, to define actions for the models, but this might come in a later version. There is no ability to program individual motor responses or access their sensor readings. This App is maintained by the Technic Team. Today (August4 2019), this is the only way to access motors attached to the Technic Smart Hub.

Boost App V1.9

The Boost App is designed to provide the coursework and model instructions associated with the Boost Creative toolbox. It allows access to the Boost Move Hub, It allows free programming, as well as instructions for the combination models (eg City/Ninjago).

Hard Ware supported by the Boost App: Move Hub; the Boost Color/distance sensor; the Medium Linear Motor.

The app only supports the Move Hub, Medium Linear motor (servo motor) and the Boost Sensor. It does not allow access to other plug compatible sensors or motors.

The app provides instructions for the 5 models, whose parts are included in the kit, as well as starter projects using elements included: a steerable car; a walking base and an automatic door. It also contains controls for the Creator Expert Roller Coaster, and models utilising the Ninjago StormBringer Dragon, and the LEGO City Arctic Scout Truck.

It does allow the generation of ‘macro commands’ as well as uploading of custom sound files for your construction. Instructions can also be shared with your friends via LEGO Life App. As such, this apps coding facility is more powerful than the Powered Up App. Star Wars Boost commander accesses the same hardware. The App is Maintained by the Boost Project.

LEGO Boost Star Wars

This app is designed to run in conjunction with 75253 Star Wars Boost Droid Commander. Announced on May the 4th this year, this new set has already been released. It provides the instructions to build each of the droids and offers programmable missions in conjunctions with heroes from the Star Wars Universe. Supporting the same Boost hardware as the Boost Creative Toolbox, this App provides missions for the builder to complete. The Boost hardware here is identical to that provided in the Creative Toolkit, and if you have the parts, you can work with both

Hard Ware supported by the Boost App: Move Hub; the Boost Color/distance sensor; the Medium Linear Motor.

Powered Up App V2.2.0

The POWERED UP APP remains the primary canvas /programming interface supported by LEGO to control all elements at this time. It is maintained by the Platform Unit. This is the app that will be most frequently used to control free builds.

Compared to the Boost App, it is does not currently support the uploading of custom sound files, creation of ‘macro commands’ or subroutines, or sharing of programs with your friends through LEGO Life.

It also provides dedicated screens to control the LEGO City Trains, 60197; 60198, and the App Powered Batmobile 26112

However, it does allow the Boost Hub to be used with any of the other Powered Up Hardware.

Today, it supports the following hardware:

Hubs CURRENTLY supported by the Powered Up App: the Smart Hub and Move Hub
Outputs supported by the Powered Up App: Simple medium linear motor; train motor; Medium Linear motor; Boost colour-distance sensor; Powered Up Lights; WeDo distance sensor; WeDo Tilt sensor

Unfortunately the Technic Smart Hub cannot be controlled by the Powered Up App, TODAY (August 4 2019).

The New Technic L and XL Smart Motors are probably supported by the App via the Boost Move hub, and the Smart Hub BUT today, only Control+ can make them do anything with the new Technic Smart Hub.

There have been conflicting reports as to whether or not the new motors can be powered by powered by the Smart Hub, which comes with the LEGO Train sets, as well as the Move Hub, which comes with Boost Sets, although I have seen video evidence of them working together.

[Post Publication update: Smart Hub – train hub – seems to be able to read and move the motors using either of the remote or the Powered up App. The Technic motors do not seem to work, at present, when plugged into ports C or D of the Boost Move Hub. thanks to Balasz Kiss of racingbrick.com for sharing his unpublished observations. Published with permission]

Conversations with the Powered Up firmware team have revealed that future roadmap for the Powered Up app includes the adding support for multiple hubs, as well as the development of custom control screens with the app, to allow more intuitive custom control, rather than just programming sequential behaviours using block coding. They also expect to be providing support for the new SmartHub. Unfortunately, while these are the development priorities, we do not know when we can expect to see them added to the app.

LEGO DUPLO Connected Train

This App is designed to work with the Cargo Train 10875 or Steam Train 10874, and adds sound effects as well as velocity control. This train can also be controlled by tiles that plug into the track. The train can run in standalone mode. as an alternative using the App – simply by pushing it to start. While the train cannot be accessed using the Powered Up App, it utilises the same Bluetooth protocols as the rest of the Powered Up range.

However, as the current philosophy expressed by LEGO with regard to DUPLO is not to mix those sets with System elements(despite their well known compatibility), so the DUPLO Train control is currently managed with a seperate app.

Firmware

Technically, the firmware is not an app, but refers to the programming to be found within the Hubs, that defines behaviour.

One aspect of this is the way that a hub might behave with a remote control: We saw with the LEGO City Trains, that the remote control would work to adjust the speed of the train motor incrementally. The same action with a medium linear motor (both the simple motor, as well as the Boost servo motor) attached to the smart hub gives us an ‘instantaneous on’ or ‘bang-bang’ type of control. With the 80002 light unit attached, we see the lights increase in brightness.

A recent firmware upgrade to the Boost Move Hub has added the functionality of pairing it with a remote control. The built in motors (Channels A&B) run as ‘instant on/off’. If you push the green button on the remote, we can switch remote control to channels B&C. This functionality does not currently exist with the Technic Smart Hub, but could easily be added in the future. I will post instructions for this in a future post.

At this point in time, there are no default behaviours for any of the hubs, should they not be paired with a device: should a second press of the power button start the motor on channel A running continuously? this would certainly allow the hub to be more useful in the absence of a connected app, or indeed in the future when the current generation of tablets are all obsolete: what will happen in 20 years time, and my grandchildren are rummaging through my old LEGO elements while attending my wake? Will they be able to make an interactive model, or will they just say ‘I wonder what that did’? I would love to think that this could be changed in the future as well.

Softly Softly

As much as I feel frustrated by not being able to ‘make the new hardware do everything, now’, I can understand why the process has been rolled out slowly.

LEGO want users who are building a set for the first time to have a great experience. Users want the model to just work, they way it says on the packet. And a small, limited system is easier to comprehensively test and eliminate errors from than a larger one.

Limiting the functionality also reduces the potential for confusion. If the only thing in the house that the hub can connect to is that phone running Control+, you know it won’t get hijacked by the remote control, or someone else running the Powered Up App.

By not having default actions in the hub at initial release, the chance of success is high, and builds on to a positive user experience. For those users who want to get going, and take their model to the next level, this can be extraordinarily frustrating.

Moving forward:

Unlike the other Apps, Powered Up is ‘owned’ by the platform, rather than specific themes or product lines. The intention is that this software will handle all available hardware elements, and is working towards multi hub support, as well as a way of creating control panels. Unfortunately, we do not have a firm idea as to WHEN this will happen.

I met the Technic Team at the Fan Media days, and they also emphasised that Control Plus would be the only way to access the Technic Smart Hub when the sets became available, but Powered Up App control would arrive in the fullness of time. Hopefully this feature will be enabled sooner rather than later: I am pretty sure that there are many Technic fans who have been holding off purchasing Powered Up hardware, expecting to be able to access control of the Motors through this hub. At this point, the elements are only included in sets, but we expect that they will become available to purchase separately through shop@home in due course. Of

One of the great things about all of the current Powered Up hubs – Technic Smart Hub, Smart Hub(Train hub) and the Move Hub (Boost) – is that they feature upgradeable firmware, and the apps can continue to be under development after release, and upgraded for future functionality. So while we are missing some functionality today (August 4 2019), perhaps tomorrow will be a happier, more creative place.

So in summary:

  • The 42099 X-treme Off Roader 4×4 is now available, and features 2x Technic XL Motors, as well as an L motor and the new Technic Smart Hub.
  • The Control+ App is only designed to control the basic model from the set, and not your own creations. ( It will support the Liebherr Excavator when that is released later in the year)
  • The Current version of the Powered Up App (2.2.0) cannot pair with the Technic Smart Hub at present (August 4 2019).
  • The new Technic L and XL Motors appear to be able to be driven when they are attached to a Smart Hub (the one that came with 2018 LEGO City train sets 60197/60198 and the Batmobile 76112), connected to a remote. I am yet to confirm whether they can be controlled and read using the Powered Up App.

The Technic Smart Hub, as well as the new motors, has been long awaited by Technic fans, particularly those with a desire to get a new building project off the ground.

I can understand the desire of different teams to provide a solid ‘Launch Experience,’ that works the way that it should, straight out of the box (some assembly required). However, the lack of programmable, or even remote control, support for the Technic Smart Hub is extremely frustrating.

Some users are taking other approaches are other approaches being taken to the problem, such as the Brick Automation Project, which is setting out to integrate Power Functions/ SBrick, BuWizz and Powered Up interface within a single program running on windows (this program has, in particular, a focus on controlling train layouts), and I am sure there are others. LEGO has released the documentation pertaining to the Bluetooth protocols. If you understand how to make this work, you might care to look it up here.

Hopefully we will see an update to Powered Up before to long, providing us with proper access to incorporate all of the available elements.

Until then…

Play well.

Information in this article has been obtained, in part, through a presentation from the Powered Up team at the Fan Media Days in Billund, as well as interviews with that team, and the Technic Designers behind Control+, the 4×4 and Liebherr Excavator.

I will be producing some further articles discussing the current state of the Powered Up Hardware in the next couple of weeks...

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