Tuesday, February 26, 2008

GeekDad Review: The Unofficial LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT Inventor's Guide

The Unofficial LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT Inventor's GuideIn some respects, the LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT set's seemingly limitless potential serves to intimidate beginning builders -- the question looms, where to start? That's why books like The Unofficial LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT Inventor's Guide (No Starch) are so important. They supply newbies with the how-to they need to get started, and provide a variety of simple and challenging projects. With this help, builders get the confidence they need to start creating original projects.

The Inventor's Guide, written by David J. Perdue, begins with a ten whole chapters of background information, with how-tos on such topics as building sturdy structures, configuring gears, and the NXT programming language NXT-G. This latter section, which actually consists of three chapters, shows the author's strength with programming. Perdue, a MIS student at Liberty University clearly knows what he's doing at the keyboard. I was particularly impressed by the author's suggestions for first time users. NXT can be intimidating, and having material on as basic a topic as unpacking tips could prove very helpful to raw newbies. Of course these informational chapters can be skipped over if all you want to do is make the robots! chapters can be skipped over if all you want to do is make the robots!

Speaking of which, it's not until Chapter 11 that Perdue presents the robots that make up the "juicy part" of the book. The Zippy-Bot starts off the selection. Quick and simple to build, it serves as a platform for a number of subsequent bots. For example, the Bumper-Bot and Claw-Bot add capabilities to the basic bot. This gradual enhancement demonstrates the importance of building basic models and expanding upon them to learn the system. "The goal is to encourage and equip readers to begin creating their very own inventions," Perdue said. "I often advise new users to take sample models and modify them into different creations."

Then he busts out the more complicated robots. The Tag-Bot plays flashlight tag using its light sensors to detect when it's "tagged." The Guard-Bot is a six-legged robot that detects movement and responds. But my favorite robot of the six is the Golf-Bot, that can pinpoint an object in the room, and launch a "golf ball" (actually the NXT-standard ping-pong ball) at the target.

With a very solid how-tos, an awesome programming section as well as cool robots, the Inventor's Guide has a lot to offer both brand-new users as well as experienced builders. Best of all, the models described in the book use parts from a single LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT starter set, so you don't have to be a power user get started building.

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