Cancelling LEGO® MINDSTORMS is a Sad Thing. But is it a Bad Thing?

For the better part of a generation, LEGO® MINDSTORMS has been considered the premier name in robotics education – both as a school-based educational tool, and as a consumer-level product: Even though I was at peak Dark Ages when the first set was released in 1998, I was aware of its existence, and before I had become engaged with the LEGO Community, I had somehow become aware that the RCX had been reverse engineered, with hobbyists developing ways to program it in ways not initially intended. But I digress. Kids brought up with those early sets are now well-established in their careers, which may in part be due to their engagement with MINDSTORMS at a formative time.

A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that the 51515 LEGO MINDSTORMS Robot Inventor, and with it, the LEGO MINDSTORMS Brand, will be retired at the end of 2022 – a little over 2 years since the set’s initial release in October 2020.

This brand, with a pedigree dating back to the 1980s, was being unceremoniously retired. Well, it will be at the end of the year. In part, this retirement means that the app now enters into its sunset phase, where no further development is taking place, but the software is maintained to run on contemporary platforms for two years, as required under European law. But what then?

[read on for more]

Billund October 26th, 2022: Since its launch in September 1998, LEGO MINDSTORMS has been one of the core ‘Build & Code’ experiences in the company’s portfolio, carrying with it significant brand equity and becoming a stand-out experience for the early days of consumer robotics and leading to current Build & Code experiences such as SPIKE Prime, from LEGO Education’s LEGO Learning System. 

However, now having a number of priorities in LEGO Education and other Build & Code experiences, we have decided to focus our resources and future plans by redirecting our MINDSTORMS Robot Inventor team and their expertise into different areas of the business.  

This means the physical MINDSTORMS Robot Inventor product (51515) and its related elements (88016 and 88018) are to exit our portfolio from the end of 2022, whilst digital platforms – such as the LEGO MINDSTORMS Robot Inventor App – will remain live until at least the end of 2024.  

We still have strong belief in the Build & Code proposition and will continue to support it through platforms such as SPIKE Prime, and we are continuing to hold on to the trademark for the MINDSTORMS brand and assessing our future plans together with LEGO Education. 

A Brief History of LEGO MINDSTORMS

This picture serves no purpose, other than to demonstrate that I have a problem with holding onto things from the past: I have held onto this magazine since it was first published in 1982. The building kit for this turtle robot cost approximately $375 AUD at the time. Apply inflation to it, and it would have been around $1300AUD in today’s money. The current MINDSTORMS set is less than half that cost, with significantly more versatility..

Now, Mindstorms development is linked, in part, to the work of Dr Seymour Papert at the MIT Media Labs. Dr Papert had a firm belief that children could be taught the fundamentals of programming and invented a new paradigm in which to teach it: using a language called LOGO, you could write a program that would navigate a turtle – a triangular shape on the screen, or a hemispherical robot loaded with a felt tip marker. He wrote about his theories and findings in the book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, published in 1980.

Seeing much in common between Papert’s Theories of Learning, as well as the LEGO Group’s philosophy of learning through play, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen visited the MIT Media labs, and a long-standing partnership was launched.

Early control systems tethered the brick-built robot to the computer controlling them by wire, and the time came when Papert sought to enclose the computing controller within a LEGO Brick itself.

Meanwhile, the team at Dacta – the Educational arm of the LEGO Group were working towards a “Home Learning” Function – kids were looking for something fun (even challenging), that involved technology and also construction. – and the team came to realise that the Intelligent Brick under development at MIT may well be key to the solution. There were a few delays and the planned 1997 release was pushed back to 1998. The decision to name the system ‘MINDSTORMS’ was in part, a tribute to Papert’s earlier work.

The new platform, centring on 9719 Robotics Invention set, using the RCX brick was released in September 1998. And sold out by Christmas. The RCX Brick had 3 input ports and 3 output ports using similar connections to the 9V system, as well as a small LCD screen. Programs were developed using a variation of the Texas Instruments Lab View software and downloaded using an infrared link. It had a 16MHz processed and 32 kB of RAM. Further development of the software saw version 1.5 released in 1999, with a camera system added (Vision command) in 2000. Version 2.0 came out in 2001, and while additional sensors for the RCX became available over that time, further development was curtailed.

Community engagement with the LEGO MINDSTORMS product was fostered through one of the first online-sanctioned Communities: LEGOMINDSTORMS.com

The release of MINDSTORMS coincided with the founding of First LEGO League, a competitive event where children learn to use robots for problem-solving, as well as develop their presentation skills and gracious professionalism..

During this period, we were also presented with the Droid developer and Dark Side developer kits, driven by the Micro Scout system: motors which could run using predetermined programs, or using a simple light receiver.

MINDSTORMS seemed to fester for a while, while the short lived Spybotics line was given a run.

The NXT system was released in 2006 using a new brick – featuring an inbuilt speaker, 3 input ports, 4 output posts, and the ability to download programs from a computer using new-fangled Bluetooth technology. NXT had a 48 MHz processor, and 64 kB of RAM. NXT involved significant input from the AFOL community in the development of some of its core models. NXT 2.0, released in 2009 features some slightly different contents in the set, as well as updated software (and firmware) to control the robots.

NXT was discontinued at the end of 2012. There was some disappointment at the time, but the news of MINDSTORMS being discontinued had been weathered before.

The 15th anniversary of MINDSTORMS in 2013 saw the next hardware revision: the EV3 system. Using an underlying Linux platform, the brick has a 300MHz processor, 64MB of RAM and 16MB of flash memory. The platform continues to use software based on LABVIEW, which is based on a visual code block model, but as an alternative, micropython was also available as a programming language.

EV3 was available until early 2020, at which stage a new robotics paradigm in the education sphere: Spike Prime. Released essentially as an educational set, Spike prime saw a shift away from the LabVIEW environment, and introduced a Scratch-based programming environment. Scratch is a programming environment that uses word blocks to set up the relevant code. The hub has 6 input/output ports, and instead of an LCD screen, a 5×5 LED matrix, as well as an accelerometer and gyroscopic sensor. The Hub is powered by a 100MHz M4 320 KB RAM 1M FLASH processor and includes 32 MB of memory for programs, sound, and content. We have seen an expansion pack, as well as a new Spike essentials set – with a smaller, 2-port hub

Later in 2020, the 51515 Robot Inventor set was released: this set uses the same basic hub as the Spike Prime, but in funky teal, rather than yellow. This was one of the first sets to feature the label ‘Build and Code.’ The platform can also be operated by remote control – even using game controllers.

The 51515 comes with its own version of Scratch, and its own dialect of Python. Unfortunately the programs for the Robot Inventor and Spike Prime are not directly compatible. That said, the hardware can have its firmware updated between the software platforms: Spike Prime and MINDSTORMS. Now, both of these sets have different focuses: the Spike Prime set is designed for classroom use – enabling students to build simple systems and get programs running within the hour of a class, while the Robot Inventor set is set up to produce a larger model, and program it in a variety of ways – something to put together and play with over the course of a few days or weeks.

And now, in November 2022, 51515 is now scheduled for retirement at the end of the year. This is surprising, given the typical shelf life that we see demonstrated with the Mindstorms Consumer Sets.

But does this matter?

We have had two sets: one educational and one consumer, using identical hardware, but mutually incompatible software. One is designed for teaching, another is designed for construction and play. It could get a little confusing at the consumer level.

Both platforms can be used for First LEGO League – as could EV3 until this year – but the consumer set allows the use of a remote control unit: something that is against the rules of FLL. So, if only one set that contains the compatible hub is available, that makes controlling and programming simple to troubleshoot. And there are unlikely to be as many problems with trying to install inappropriate programs onto a hub with mismatched firmware. Going forward, there will be only one option on the shelves: SPIKE PRIME.

LEGO BOOST and Powered Up

The first three generations of MINDSTORMS were able to be programmed using a visual block control language based on the now-aging TI Labview. I suspect royalties were owed: With Spike prime/MINDSTORMS Robot Inventor, this Graphical interface was lost, replaced with the word boxes prevalent in Scratch. Python, introduced with EV3 remained an option. But elsewhere in the LEGO Universe, a new consumer coding platform was brewing…

The 17191 BOOST Creative Toolbox was released in 2017 and provided a Studs Up opportunity for kids to bring their creations to life. BOOST was programmed using a visual block language on a tablet, and gave us a simple approach to get the core models up and running, while providing enough information to start exploring the world beyond the set, using the studded paradigm we were all familiar with. BOOST saw a second set – the Star Wars Droid Commander released, and its app will cease support at the end of the year – with its programming functionality to be moved into Powered Up. The BOOST hub is already supported there – along with its motors and sensors – and we can expect the sounds and coding blocks from the original Toolkit to be moved into Powered Up in 2024 (suggesting that it is also due for retirement this year).

In 2018, we were introduced to Powered up – the new hub-based system for the broader LEGO Electronic ecosystem. All of the current LEGO electronics systems utilize a common set of protocols – from Duplo trains to LEGO Super Mario, taking in City and Technic along the way. Not all of these sets can be controlled from within the Powered Up App, BUT the underlying communications framework can be. The Powered Up App has been designed to become the centrepiece of the platform.

In 2019, a coding canvas very similar to that of LEGO BOOST was introduced into the Powered Up App, and motorised automation was again possible, without the investment in using a very similar (but not quite identical) coding block-based approach to Boost But it has a drawback: except for systems controlled directly by the remote control, the system must always have an active connection to the controlling tablet: the tablet/phone houses all the brains, and also runs the program, rather than running it on the hub itself.

This App/Bluetooth connection dependence continues to frustrate people today, particularly in busy public events, where there might be more Bluetooth signals floating around than can be comfortably counted.

A virtual machine, allowing small programs to run on Powered Up Smart Hubs without a Bluetooth connection to a tablet has been on the roadmap since 2019, but has been running into repeated problems with implementation. And other problems have existed for Powered Up: A lack of documentation and tutorials – in-app or otherwise, the ability to save or transfer ‘programs’ (the boost app allows sharing of code via LEGO Life, and indeed, to this date, the Powered Up App does not access ALL the current hubs: the Spike Prime Hub is currently inaccessible to the Powered Up app (regardless of the firmware installed).

Silver Linings: What could the Future Hold? Wild Dreams and Rampant Speculation

The complete story behind the forthcoming retirement of 51515, and the dispersal of the Mindstorms team is unclear: perhaps by having two similar but different, incompatible systems available simultaneously the waters were muddied for what people should buy for the purpose of FLL, or classroom education. Perhaps the ongoing worldwide semiconductor shortage has limited the amount of hubs and motors able to be produced, and LEGO Education is having its products served up as a priority? Perhaps it is as simple as shifting resources to other priorities.

The team who have been responsible for the ongoing development of the Mindstorms App have been deployed to other projects.

***All that follows is conjecture and Speculation***

The press release cites “… a number of priorities in LEGO Education and other Build & Code experiences, we have decided to focus our resources and future plans by redirecting our MINDSTORMS Robot Inventor team and their expertise into different areas of the business. ” What could these priorities be?

Alongside Powered Up and MINDSTORMS, we have had the WeDo system – analogous to an educational version of Powered Up, aimed at younger students: It has now been retired in favour of Spike Essentials – a whittled-down hub with only 2 ports, and a plug-in 3×3 LED matrix: further development might be required there, as well as further development of Spike Prime App and firmware.

But I would like to think that at long last, the Powered Up App is going to be given some of the love it needs to become a spiritual successor to MINDSTORMS, in a world where most of the hubs available can be programmed to function as simple (and complex) robot systems.

I would love to see the Powered Up hubs – Smart hub (Train); Move Hub (BOOST) and Technic Smart Hub- get further developed towards having a virtual machine run on these platforms. It should be possible: the PyBricks system provides alternate firmware to download for the Powered UpHubs (including the Spike/MINDSTORMS Smart Hub, as well as providing an opportunity to continue to code for the EV3. Hopefully, the MINDSTORMS team can bring some expertise to this problem that has been dogging Powered up for years.

This development could potentially bring the Powered up App up to the level of the MINDSTORMS graphic code blocks that stood the test of time for over 20 years. I find myself wondering if there might be further plans afoot for the concept of “MINDSTORMS.”

The rebranding to Spike Prime was, in part necessary to divorce the building system from the notion that a graphical interface was essential, which might have become part of an expectation with MINDSTORMS systems.

BUT MINDSTORMS enjoys a longevity within the LEGO Group’s brands rivalled exceeded only by the alternative brick/construction systems – DUPLO and Technic. And perhaps, due to the integration of programmable hardware in its DNA, it deserves to be considered in a similar fashion: presenting an alternative paradigm to a purely mechanical construction. The Technic branding was only introduced in 1985, 7 years after the building system was introduced. DUPLO took some time out in the early dark days of the 21st Century, adopting the ‘EXPLORE’ branding, resulting in confused consumers and dropping sales.

Next year, 2023, represents the 25th anniversary of the first release of LEGO MINDSTORMS. I cannot imagine that a company so enthralled with its own nostalgia could just let this pass. I wonder if we will see the Powered Up creative canvas, complete with virtual machines, released under the MINDSTORMS banner. If not in line with the anniversary, then the year afterwards? A visual block-based programming system to be used with the Powered Up elements – like the one we have now, but with the existing gaps filled and the previously promised documentation. This would indeed be a great celebration of a platform that has been the core of STEM teaching for almost a generation.

Perhaps I have painted an overly optimistic picture, and we might never see a consumer-targeted robotics platform developed beyond what we already have.

It is sad to see the MINDSTORMS brand discontinued, even if just for a short period. The LEGO Group do not have a great record with the implementation of Technological/App based solutions in recent years: for every MINDSTORMS and Spike Prime, there is a VIDIYO or Hidden Side: a platform with grand ambitions that are never quite realised.

However, LEGO MINDSTORMS was one of the first places where the LEGO Group set out to develop and nurture online communities, through LEGOMINDSTORMS.com. I would hate the withdrawal of the brand to be emblematic of the direction that is being taken with regard to engaging more broadly with Fan communities.

But at the end of the day, a set is being retired, and a long-running brand will be given a rest. Whichever way we look at it, while combining coding with LEGO sets might have started with LEGO MINDSTORMS, this is not where the story finishes. The team involved with MINDSTORMS will have expertise that can be applied to any number of projects within the company needing a little work, including POWERED UP, which is certainly in need of a bit of love and attention.

While I would love to see MINDSTORMS return in some way for its 25th anniversary next year, I won’t hold my breath

How have you felt about the recent news pertaining to MINDSTORMS? How would you like to see the brand revived in the future? Why not leave your comments below, and until next Time:

Play Well!

The following articles were invaluable while researching the history of LEGO MINDSTORMS:

https://hackeducation.com/2015/04/10/mindstorms

https://lan.lego.com/news/overview/lego-mindstorms-reflections-%E2%80%93-what-happened-before-the-announcement-in-january-1998-r173/

And for a different view on the history…check out this article from BrickNerd.

https://bricknerd.com/home/going-for-gold-the-story-of-the-golden-lego-rcx-and-nxt-9-9-21

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