I am currently attending the Recognised LEGO Fan Media Days from the comfort of my own home. Previously, this has involved a trip to Denmark, but this year the event is being held online. One of the presentations I have been looking forward to is an update on the LEGO® Powered Up system. We had the opportunity to hear an update from Gaute Munch, Director of the Creative Play Lab, and Flemming Bjørn Jessen, a Senior Producer in the Digital Technology Department.
The Powered Up Ecosystem
We started with a reminder of the Powered Up system – this is the ‘Grand United Ecosystem’ that encompasses all of the electronics used in current LEGO Models. From a hardware point of view, in includes all of the hubs, controllers and sensors sold in sets labelled: Powered Up (eg LEGO City Trains); Mindstorms (51515); Spike Prime; Boost; Control+; WeDo as well as Duplo trains. In the past 12 months, we saw the arrival of 51515 Mindstorms Robot Inventor, and the ‘Dumb’ Battery Box. This battery box was due to be released with the aborted Technic Osprey set, but is available as a standalone component through Shop at home. At least, it is available if there is stock available.
All of these systems, with the exception of the Duplo Train Hub are plug compatible. The goal is that all of the systems with upgradeable firmware will be able to be programmed/controlled via the Powered Up App, and access all sensors. This is the end goal… the challenge facing consumers is that the system is not quite there yet.
What advantages does using a ‘unified app’ provide?
There are three main pillars of the app: Code and Control; Enable Connected LEGO play experiences; and to provide longevity to the hardware system when individual systems apps might no longer be supported.
The App currently provides two ways that you can control your custom creations: Visual coding, as well as a Plug and Play control panel. The coding allows to set a predetermined set of behaviours, reading sensors and activiating motors, while the control panel allows you to set up controls for your creation, so that you can control it in real time.
We have seen a number of connected play experiences added in the last year or so: the 10273 ‘Creator Expert’ Haunted House – with the Drop ride controlled by the powered up app; the 21323 LEGO Ideas Grand Piano – where different tunes can be played in response to pressing keys on the piano itself, and the 10277 Crocodile Train Controller. This is in conjunction with a number of other play experiences, including the App controlled Batmobile and the Disney Train. These typically belong to franchises/themes where there is not sufficient demand for an independent app (such as we see with Boost, or Control +)
Another role for the app is to provide longevity to the hardware, after support for a set’s native app has been dropped, for example – that with the Boost Creative Tool Box or Droid Commander App: in the future, we might expect that the content of those apps is dropped into powered up, or at the very least, the software continues to support the hardware components in those sets.
After covering the reasoning behind the App, Flemming went on to discuss the plans currently underway:
First up: the third iteration of the custom controller is on the way: I have not really spoken about this previously, as it felt relatively incomplete, but it looks like this is about to really hit its straps, with a more customisable experience, including the colour and rotations of control widgets on screen, the ability to add custom backgrounds, as well as a new widget set, designed to give a classic LEGO Look and Feel.
There will also be a number of new themed controllers, at least one of which will provide an interface more akin to an electric, rather than setting out to emulate the experience of a petrol powered one.
The Coding Canvas is due to get a bit of an overhaul, ostensibly due for release around the end of the year. The primary goal is to imporve its overall usability and accessibility. There will be a new skin for the canvas that improves the contrast and makes it easier for use by people with visual impairment.
There are a few more initiatives that are on the horizon – including a Powered Up Virtual Machine, Behaviour Building, and an imminent round of AFOL Consultation. To say nothing of some long overdue help and documentation to be added to the program.
The proposed Powered Up Virtual Machine has been spoken about on and off for a year or two: the possibility for a program to be uploaded into the hub, in turn controlling a model without the need for it to be connected to a smart device running the App. This feature has provided a few challenges to implement, but is getting closer to rolling out as part of a closed Alpha version soon.
I have previously discussed the drawback of the the dependence of the app for the Powered Up system, with a system that will be crippled in the future, should it be unearthed in an attic, without the appropriate software to use it: the virtual machine will also allow default behaviours to be encoded such that, for example, simply tapping the power button on a hub that has a motor attached, but no active Bluetooth connection, will result in the motor starting and stopping.
Behaviour building is an attempt to bring the age of accessibility to a lower point, so that kids who are not fluent with coding will be able to still bring their models to life. this feels like it is something similar to what we see with some of the models in the Boost ecosystem, where a finished model can be coded by simply adding the ‘make a noise’ or turn around blocks to their program.
Finally… Documentation: this has long been a bug bear for casual users of the system, and has become a priority for the developers: we can expect to see Coding block documentation, as well as tutorials for the coding canvas and custom controller. Development of an in-App help system is also high on the agenda.
Finally, the team are preparing to engage in another round of community consultation, with AFOLs gathered from LUGs around the world, to help determine priorities, as well as testing some of the proposed features.
After the presentation, questions were thrown open to the floor, and a number of topics came up.
The topic of running a Great Ball Contraption module was brought up: this is a fairly unique application for use of a motorised system, where fans have typically held onto their legacy 9 volt (mains) controllers, to keep their system running all day. Unfortunately, it this stage a mains powered hub is unlikely. The Smart hubs (boost, train and technic) all have removable battery caddies, which could, in principle be be replaced with a rechargable battery. The 6 Port (Mindstorms 4/Spike Prime) hub can be plugged into a USB charger to keep running, but probably represents overkill for the purpose of this application, although it represents the only real solution in the current portfolio.
Backwards compatibility was also brought up as an issue: it certainly does not look like there will be a supported power functions or 9V to Powered Up Connector any time soon. The LEGO Group are unlikely to produce a linkage which ‘kind of does the job’ but does not provide complete compatibility. It will probably be up to members of the community and 3rd party suppliers to create this type of linkage.
However, the Boost LED, in the colour detector/light unit can emit infra red, and be used to as a remote control for power functions. I have had a project on the back burner for a little while demonstrating this… would you like me to dust it off soon?
Finally, the Mindstorms hardware, including the 6 port hub, is not currently supported by the Powered Up App. The team hope to add this support by the end of the year.
The one thing that the team emphasised is that they do value the input from AFOLs with regard to the development of the system, although it is apparent that the team is perhaps under-resourced for the purpose of getting all of this work done in a timely fashion. At this point, documentation, the virtual machine and the interface changes seem to be occupying the developer’s time.
There is a lot to look forward to, and I believe the system has great potential. Unfortunately, at this stage, so much is unrealised. I wonder in this is because Powered Up does not belong to any one theme, in the way that Mindstorms is: they provide support to City, Ideas, the theme previously referred to as Creator Expert, Ninjago, Disney and Super heroes. By transcending product lines, they do not necessarily have the support of a sponsoring team, who are making a priority of getting the app and firmwares fully realised. Hopefully, we will see some further results of the next phase of consultation before Christmas 2021. Fingers crossed.
What would you like to see happen with Powered Up? why not leave your comments below, and until next time,