The Never-Ending Fun of Lego Mindstorms (Book Review)

Book Review of The Unofficial Lego Mindstorms NXT Inventor's Guide (300 pages)
David J. Perdue
(No Starch Press)

Lego Mindstorms is one of the latest educational toys aimed at getting kids interested in high-tech subjects the fun way: by building robots. Aimed at kids 10 years old and up, the robotics kit teaches young students about building, programming, and electronics.

With more than 600 pieces allowing for a nearly endless number of projects, getting started may seem a bit intimidating. The kit does come with a user's guide, but it can't address everything - which isn't a bad thing.

So many Mindstorms enthusiasts, young and old, have been sharing their own projects and methods in online communities. One enthusiast, David J. Perdue, has recently written a book full of projects and pictures which share his excitement about the world of Mindstorms robots.

Perdue's book, called The Unofficial Lego Mindstorms NXT Inventor's Guide, serves as a valuable introduction for beginners, and also includes some more advanced information for long-time users. He goes over every step of the invention process, from building to programming, in a concise, conversational style.

The book covers the second and most recent version, Lego Mindstorms NXT, which was released in July 2006, nearly eight years after the original Lego Mindstorms kit. Perdue has been using Mindstorms since 2001, and is also the author of Competitive Mindstorms: A complete Guide to Robotic Sumo Using Lego Mindstorms (Apress, 2004). He is currently a student in Management Information Systems at Liberty University.

Although some of the basics are included, the Unofficial book goes beyond the user's guide, explaining not only how to get started, but also how to successfully create robotics masterpieces. Perdue explains the electronics elements, as well as the NXT-G programming tool (a simple drag-and-drop visual system that requires no code). In one chapter, he describes four unofficial programming languages developed by fans as a programming alternative. He also has created a consistent naming standard for all the pieces (there is no official naming standard).

Fortunately, the book is practical-oriented, not theory-oriented, enabling users to jump right in and start learning useful information. The chapters are broken down into short, readable sections, more like reading an outline than long paragraphs. Perdue holds your attention with lots of grayscale pictures, and many of the pages are filled with more pictures than text for quick reading.

Perdue knows when to keep things short, and he also knows what his readers want. He takes just a few pages to describe the important "Mindstorms Method" (brainstorm, build, program, document), getting the significance across in his simplicity. He's not afraid of exclamation points, and is down to earth with phrases like "incredibly fun" and "I personally enjoy." He also has a mind-reading ability ("you're probably wondering"), and frequently gives brief answers to questions that may come up while you're working.

The best part, of course, is the step-by-step instructions to building actual robots. These projects range from beginner ‘bots, with 10-15 pages of instructions, to 40-pager robots. Readers can learn how to build a robot that plays flashlight tag with humans, a robot that plays golf, and a guard robot that detects intruders with an ultrasonic sensor, and then launches balls at the trespassers. Like the rest of the book, the instructions are full of images showing every angle of construction.

At the end of the book, Perdue includes handy appendices of all Mindstorms pieces and programming blocks for quick reference. He also has several pages of relevant books and Web sites - from blogs to events to educational resources - for readers to search more on their own.

Overall, the book has a very beginner-like quality in terms of its ease of understanding, but readers will quickly realize they've learned a great deal of information. By making it easy and fun to learn robotics, Perdue's book should be a useful addition to getting the most out of your Mindstorms NXT kit. And even for those who don't own the $250 kit, reading this book (for an affordable $30) should provide a comprehensive introduction to the product. If you then decide to purchase the kit, you'll already have a great reference tool.

More information can be found at the book's companion Web site:  You read reviews and buy it here .

Lisa Zyga
Science Blogger