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Robot playthings have been charming youngsters at least since the first tinplate robots were mass-produced in the World War II era. Today's robotic toys do a lot more than the windup automatons of yore. And if you choose wisely, your gift can also help inculcate some of the rudiments of engineering.
For the smaller tyke, consider an Ollo Action Kit (US $30 at Amazon or ThinkGeek). It resembles a plastic Erector Set, but the pieces are joined with snap-together rivets instead of nuts and bolts. Manipulating the rivets still takes fine motor skills, so I wouldn't recommend it for kids younger than about 7. An accompanying booklet shows, with a sequence of very clear pictures, how to first assemble a simple quadruped before moving on to four motorized projects: a windmill, a dog, an insect, and finally a dinosaur.
My 8-year-old son, having assembled countless Lego sets over the years, jumped right to the dinosaur and had it walking around the dining room table in no time. So for a bigger challenge, I presented him with the paragon of robotics gadgetry for children: a Lego Mindstorms set.
First released in 2001, the Lego Mindstorms Robotics Invention System got a significant upgrade in 2006, with the introduction of Mindstorms-NXT. Its 577 parts included four different kinds of sensors and three rather sophisticated servomotors. The most recent edition, the Mindstorms-NXT 2.0 Robotics Kit ($240 from Amazon), released in 2009, boosts the overall parts count to 619, contains a slightly different mix of sensors (one ultrasonic range finder, one color sensor, and two contact sensors), and offers such niceties as a built-in Bluetooth radio and the ability to do floating-point calculations.
I'd read about Mindstorms many times, including in this magazine [PDF], but I hadn't appreciated how well this system was put together. Hats off to the folks at Lego for producing something that works so well at so many levels.
Any child who can piece together Lego bricks should have little trouble assembling the starter robot, a small tracked vehicle described in the kit's 62-page instruction booklet. The heart of the kit is its computer module, the NXT "brick," which the starter robot holds at a convenient angle for viewing the LCD screen and operating the four buttons. With just that simple user interface, youngsters can quickly get their creations moving and doing various interesting things.
But that's just the starting point. The next step is to install the accompanying software on a computer and start programming your robot du jour using Lego's graphical programming language, NXT-G. National Instruments helped to develop this user-friendly environment, which is based on NI's well-known LabVIEW (Laboratory Virtual Instrumentation Engineering Workbench) software. With some dragging and dropping, you can quickly develop programs that with the click of a mouse are compiled and then downloaded over USB cable or Bluetooth to the NXT brick.
Lego's NXT-G programming environment is not only easy to master, it's also very good at reporting errors and pointing out the source of the problem (a common one was simply that the brick had shut itself off while I was busy arranging my next program).