The LEGO NXT Mindstorms Zoohonestpuck writes "Animals have taken over my house. Every time I turn around something is hopping, walking or skittering across the floor. I blame No Starch Press and the LEGO company; a NXT MindStorms kit and a copy of "The LEGO NXT Mindstorms Zoo" ("Zoo") by Fay Rhodes has my 15 year old daughter (with previously no real interest in robots or programming) building all sorts of infernal machines.
The release of the latest iteration of LEGO's robot building system, the MindStorms NXT, has brought forward a plethora of new possibilities and books to inform us of them. No Starch seems to be a leader in the field with several volumes including this one. "Zoo" subtitled "A Kid-Friendly Guide to Building Animals with the NXT Robotics System" seems well pitched at the beginner; all the models are easily built and programming the models for the basic behaviours in the book is easy and well explained.
At first impression a retail buyer will suffer some disappointment, the book is designed for those who have the Educational version of the NXT with a the extra Educational Resource Kit so a retail buyer of just the basic kit will be missing some pieces required for the models. On the other hand most NXT owners will have some LEGO already and may have the pieces (I found almost all in my collection) and Rhodes does go to the trouble of telling you which pieces and where to get them. Just keep this in mind if you are intending to give the book as a gift, you may wish to track down and purchase the extra pieces and include them with the gift to avoid disappointment. For those outside the US this might present some problems, I couldn't track down two of the recommended (but not totally necessary) bulk piece packs from Lego Australia. Fortunately Bricklink found a vendor with all the required parts fairly cheaply. If you are still stuck then the companion website for the book has more ideas on parts substitution and a parts list chart (with useful pictures) that tells you what pieces are required for each model and how many are found in each of the sets with links to the Peeron page for each part. Great attention to detail that seems to typify this book.
The book starts with a good introduction, including the aforementioned information on extra pieces and where to get them, before starting in on the first of nine robots.
- Ribbit, a jumping frog
- Bunny, a hopping rabbit
- Sandy, a walking camel
- Spiderbot, an eight-legged spider that avoids objects and walks forward and backward
- Snout, a walking alligator that opens and closes its jaws
- LEGOsaurus, a four-legged, plodding dinosaur
- Pygmy, a walking elephant that raises and lowers its head
- Polecat, a skunk on wheels that lifts its tail and shoots "darts"
- Strutter, a peacock on wheels that turns and flutters its tail feathers
The building instructions are a good size, much more easily read and understood than those from LEGO themselves which I find a little too small and sometimes including too much in each graphic step. I also appreciated the parts guide at the start of each model; when you might have to go hunting through other sets for a piece or an alternate the guide meant you could get this over and done with at the beginning rather than just as you are about to complete the model.
The first few models are also easily built and programmed, getting progressively harder as you go through the book. None are beyond the capabilities of an even moderately experienced LEGO builder. Rhodes also includes a few sidebars showing alternative parts that can be used for some of the harder to source pieces, a nice touch and one that encouraged my daughter to work around a couple of unavailable parts when building Strutter. All the model programming uses LEGO's visual programming environment rather than any of the third party languages and tools. A good choice given the book's likely readers. The model programming is a little harder to do from the instructions, though this is more due to the problems of black and white printing and a click together programming environment than design by either the publisher or author. While I had a little difficulty my daughter's eyes were able to cope and so I don't see this as a significant flaw in the book.
The first model we built was the Spiderbot, the third in the volume, as my daughter wanted to build something that reacted to the environment. After a little trouble getting the walking going perfectly, assisted by the excellent trouble shooting tips in one of the book's appendices, it behaved exactly as 'advertised' walking around the kitchen avoiding obstacles in it's path.
For our second model we jumped into the deep end, going for the final model in the volume, 'Strutter', a peacock who moves on wheels and waves his 'feathers.' This model had a couple of tricky places in the build process but none really challenged my daughter. Once again the programming was easy. With both models that we programmed Rhodes encourages the reader/builder to use the programming environment's ability to chunk code as a block and to develop using a bottom up approach
For the target market the book is almost perfect, with a good tenor and an excellent choice of models to build. It would be an ideal book to buy for someone who has just gone through building the models included by LEGO in the kit. While the book is aimed at the younger end of LEGO's suggested age range for Mindstorms don't let that put you off purchasing a copy — it's the perfect second book for almost any NXT builder and the "Kid-" could be easily dropped from the subtitle. 8 out of 10 for this book, it loses a half for the slight problem in reading the programming details and one and a half for the need to go outside the basic retail kit to find all the parts."