Jin Sato's Lego Mindstorms: A Book Review

by Steve Oualline

Title: Jin Sato's Lego MindstormsAuthor: Jin SatoPublisher: No Starch PressISBN: 1-886411-56-5

Lego Mindstorms is one of the greatest geek toys around, and Jim Sato clearly is a master Mindstorm user. Jin Sato's Lego Mindstorms tells you how to design, assemble and program a number of robots, but it goes much farther than that. It also covers things like how to clean and store your Lego bricks, design software and much more.

The book begins with a discussion of the basics, covering parts and simple construction techniques. But Sato doesn't describe only the parts that come with the Mindstorms kits; he also talks about the parts available only in other Lego TECHNIC sets.

It is not until Chapter 6 that the book begins to discuss programming. The Lego Mindstorms kit comes with its own programming system, called RCX. This software is designed to be run by seven-year-olds and is extremely limited. For the serious programmer, it is useful only for comic relief.

The good news is other programming systems exist for Mindstorms. The book discusses the other Lego-supplied system, ROBOLAB. Designed primarily for schools, this system contains a much better programming environment, but one that is still designed for children.

For hackers, a variety of programming languages are available. The first, NQC (Not Quite C) is a C-like language. Here, though, is where one of the weaknesses of the book shows up: it's Windows-centric. Although NQC is available for Linux, only the Windows version is discussed.

The other programming system discussed is legOS. This system lets you program the Mindstorms controller in C or C++, and it gives you greater control over what the system does.

The book does not limit itself to software that can be used to control the robot. It turns out that a number of CAD packages are available, such as LEdit/LDraw, MLCad, L3P and POV-Ray.

The LDraw package contains a database of all the Lego brick shapes. It is used by the MLCad program to let the user design his robots (or anything else Lego) in cyberspace instead of having to click bricks together. Finally L3P and POV-Ray can be combined to produce very nice 3-D views of the finished creation.

The real fun of Mindstorms, however, comes from building the robots, and this book contains a number of examples. Each one is designed to be fun as well as to demonstrate different design and programming techniques. There are robots that roll, robots that walk and robots that grab.

The ultimate robot is MIBO, the robotic dog. Created shortly after Sony came out with its robot dog AIBO, MIBO can walk, move its head, sit down and wag its tail. The good news is it's a neat robot; the bad news is you can't assemble it with only the parts that come with a single Mindstorms kit. It takes at least two Mindstorms and a number of parts from other places to get the thing built.

The book concludes with a chapter describing all the chores a true Lego master must do at some time or other. These chores include cleaning the parts and organizing your collection. Also, some practical advice is offered on where to get parts and where to find parts that are out of production. (Hint: garage sales. The boxes look shoddy, but the bricks often are in good shape.)

Although this book contains a great deal of information about Lego Mindstorms and Legos in general, its approach is somewhat uneven. For example, chapter 1 discusses the benefits of offsetting each row of bricks during construction (something my seven-year old nephew knew already).

The book provides almost no information about installing the Cygwin software system. All it really tells you to do is download the software and run SETUP.EXE.

If you are looking for a book that will take you step-by-step through the process of assembling and programming Mindstorms robots, this book is not for you. Too many of the steps are inadequately explained, missing or Windows-centric. On the other hand, if you are the adventurous type, or a Mindstorms hacker, this book is full of information, advice and techniques you can use. If filling in the gaps and scrounging for parts is your idea of recreation, then this is the book for you.

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