Building robots is hard. Seriously hard. Not only do you have to construct them physically, but even after you've got them all wired up with motors and sensors and batteries and whatnot, they won't actually DO anything until you've spent most of the rest of your life writing code. It's kind of depressing, when it comes down to it, because for those of us who aren't already professional roboticists, we have to deal with a learning curve like that really steep bit on the north face of the Matterhorn.
Back in 2010, a company called Modular Robotics introduced Cubelets, a system of robotic modules that could be magnetically snapped together. By themselves, the modules didn't do much, but by connecting them, you could build and program a robot at the same time, without any experience whatsoever. Last December, Modular Robotics came out with a slightly different take on this idea with MOSS. MOSS was successfully funded more than three times over on Kickstarter, and earlier this month at CES, we got a hands-on demo of the new kits.
MOSS, fundamentally, is a bunch of these little cubes with rounded corners. The rounded corners are magnetic, and by sticking a little magnetic ball in them, you can attach them to other little cubes with rounded corners. Four magnets makes for a solid connection, but you can use two magnets to create a hinged connection or one magnet to make a ball joint. Cubes that have flat faces that touch can transmit both power and data, so there's no need to wire anything, and the whole shebang can be controlled via Bluetooth from your phone.
As with Cubelets, MOSS cubes come in different colors, and each color does something different. There are cubes for power, communications, sensing, moving, and controlling, plus a bunch of other modules like wheels and braces and connectors. No programming is necessary: snapping cubes together is the same as writing a simple program, so (for example) you can attach a battery cube to a Bluetooth cube, add some wheels and a light sensor, and you can get a little robot that's attracted to light.
Of course, for those of you who want to take MOSS farther, you can absolutely do that. Or at least, you will be able to eventually. Sometime this year, Modular Robotics will be releasing two software tools for MOSS: one will let you reprogram the microcontrollers inside individual blocks in C, and the other should enable the use of a simple programming tool from MIT called Scratch.
MOSS is new enough that you'll still have to pre-order a kit, but delivery has been promised for April of this year, which isn't very long from now at all.
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Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.