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Who Are These People?

Someone outside the scene might think that these creations were built by enthusiastic kids, but the truth is that Lego Mindstorms appeals just as much to grownups as children. The lower limit on Lego Mindstorms is probably somewhere around 12 years old, but the upper limit knows no boundaries. Let's take the designers mentioned in this article: Hideaki Yabuki (Joda) of Japan is 44, JP Brown of the UK is 38, Rob Stehlik of Canada is 22, Mario Ferrari of Italy is 41, Andy Clapham (also UK) is 32, and Ben Williamson of Australia is 27. Another factor of these enthusiasts is that they are not just from the United States. Though the technology was first created at MIT, Mindstorms enthusiasts cover the globe.

Another interesting factor of these inventors is their backgrounds. From the complexity of their creations, I assumed they must have engineering training, but most have no engineering background at all. Joda has a background in software design, but his models are decidedly mechanical in nature. JP Brown is an environmental conservator, making historical buildings suitable for living. Mario Ferrari is a manager at a company specializing in publishing and promotional material. Ben Williamson works as a software engineer. Andy Clapham is technology director at an e-commerce company. The only inventor with training is Rob Stehlik, who is in his third year of mechanical engineering, but he claims the projects he does with Lego use none of the material he's learned in school. It seems that Lego Mindstorms might hold a fascination for people who have a buried gift for mechanical engineering.

Mindstorms has also become a favorite at the university level, gaining popularity with undergraduate students. More than one university undergraduate has used the RCX brick to complete a thesis—for example, a biology student simulated a swimming bacterium to prove his theory of how the bacteria travel. University professors have also noticed the benefits of using a simple robot system, and have actually made it a part of their courses. Professor Roger Glassey from U.C. Berkeley is one who uses them in his courses, and has also been involved in developing leJOS, the Java Virtual Machine for the RCX.

I've also suspected that engineers might be using Lego Mindstorms to prototype their inventions. Let's face it, there is such a large variety of technical Lego pieces that it is capable of prototyping almost anything. The Lego system is one of the best open architecture systems out there. I wouldn't be surprised if it is being used in such diverse places as toy manufacturers, automobile companies, and even NASA. One inventor featured on the official Lego site even works at the United Space Alliance at the NASA Johnson Space Center, though the site didn't mention his name.

The only real confirmation I've had of Mindstorms being used for prototyping in the industry is from Peter Abrahamson, a California-based, special-effects designer. His mechanical models have appeared in films such as Alien 3, Doctor Dolittle, and George of the Jungle. Usually, when designing a new mechanical model, the team would piece prototypes together on a computer, but once Abrahamson saw the Robotics Invention Set, he saw a cheaper way to prototype his complex robot models.

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