Lots of people are already familiar with Mindstorms, the Lego robotics platform capable of building clever tools like this automatic card-signing machine. Some might also remember Lego WeDo, the simpler educational tool for teaching kids coding basics. This year at CES, Lego is bridging the gap with Boost, a basic robotics- and programming-oriented kit that’s supposed to be more playful than didactic.
Boost is built around a motorized block called a Move Hub, powered by six AAA batteries and equipped with a tilt sensor. The $159.99 Boost kit includes another motor and a combination color and distance sensor, plus 843 more traditional Lego parts. One of the most important pieces, though, isn’t included: an iOS or Android tablet for using the accompanying app, which is both a building guide and a drag-and-drop programming tool.
Once kids have launched the app, they can pick from five major building projects. The most complex is a foot-high anthropomorphic robot called Vernie, but there’s also a slightly terrifying mechanical cat named Frankie; a colorful guitar; a rugged, tractor-like vehicle; and the “Autobuilder,” a 3D printer-like machine that can be programmed to put Lego together.
During the construction process, the app introduces builders to the simple programming interface: a series of puzzle pieces representing different actions, which can be chained together and triggered by a tap of the screen or a real-world action. This works a lot like Lego WeDo, but it’s specifically meant to feel like a toy. “The goal isn’t to teach them anything,” says Lego design lead Simon Kent. “But they will actually learn just by tinkering with it.”
You can program Vernie, for example, to dance and shake maracas (which can be built with parts in the set), to shoot a small projectile at a target, or to hold a conversation using preset lines. It can’t recognize what you’re saying, but it can tell when sound is coming through the iPad microphone.
Some of these interactions get complex enough that they’re almost games in themselves. Frankie “plays” a Lego harmonica by detecting when different colors hit the sensor over its mouth, then playing a sound that’s linked to that color, including recorded audio. This same method, this time with a slider that moves over different-colored frets, makes the Lego guitar playable. We’ve tried both these things, and they’re weirdly entertaining, even for adults. The Autobuilder is an actual manufacturing device composed in miniature, although it didn’t work perfectly when we tried it. Since Lego bricks are pretty easy to pull apart, it also feels unsurprisingly fragile.
The programming options we saw are heavily geared toward getting kids to play with specific objects in specific ways, not come up with their own robots. But there’s a more open-ended app feature that shows them how to make the skeleton of a vehicle, a four-legged animal, or a building. They can then use these frames to build whatever they want, using either the included Lego or their own sets.
Boost isn’t meant to take Mindstorms’ place, but it’s an approachable toy for younger Lego fans — and seriously, the guitar is pretty cool. The set is going on sale in the second half of 2017, and it’ll be on display at CES later this week.