Jetro's blog


BlueSmartControl - Automate your LEGO creations

Recently I’ve had a chance to test the latest versión of an exciting new platform that allows you to control your Technic (and other motorised) creations via Bluetooth. The product is called BlueSmartControl or BSC as the developers abbreviate it. Up to now, the product wasn’t commercially available, but recently a Kickstarter camapign was lauched to fund the product and so I decided write an entry on our blog.
 
 
Some of you may already be familiar with SBrick, either from reading about it in HispaBrick Magazine or you may even own one. So I can hear you thinking: what makes this product different? That’s a good question and one that merits a well thought answer, so let's take it in steps.
 
On the surface there are a number of similarities between the two platforms as well as some striking differences:
 

SBrick is a BLE controlled device with one input (battery power) and 4 outputs (motors/lights) in a slick and very LEGO-like casing, with a 4x4 footprint and includes a few pinholes for easy integration into a model.

 

BSC is a BT controlled device with 5 inputs (battery + sensors) and 6 outputs (motors/lights) in a simple non-proprietary casing with a 4x6 footprint that can easily be attached to a plate (bottom side) and is just under 2 bricks high (including connected cables - BSC comes with PF cables that have been modified on one end to fit the unit)
 
So far the SBrick looks to be the more professional solution, or does it? If we think in terms of technology there are a few significant differences that can already be easily observed. A first difference is in the BlueTooth technology used. While BLE is a very promising new technology there are still large number of devices that don't support it. BLE requires Android version 4.4 and above. BSC on the other hand works with BT 2.1 and above meaning any Android 4.0 device (and above) is compatible. While this may sound trivial, you’d be surprised at how relatively few Android devices actually have BLE (a subset of BT4.0, with the caveat that not all BT4 devices are also BLE compatible!). 
 
Another difference lies in the number of motor connection points - 4 for SBrick and 6 for BSC. In addition, BSC comes with a specific port for connecting sensors. The form factor is also something to take into account. If you strictly a Technic builder you may care less, but for integration in other LEGO builds – like trains or other System based constructions – the fact that the bottom is flat and can be placed on a plate is an important advantage.
 
BCS Is controlled via an app that allows you to create your own custom interface. Again, if you are a “standard” Technic user you may be happy with just some buttons and sliders, but the app can do much more, including the possibility of copying your entire train layout onscreen and converting it into an interactive control structure: just click on the switch point and it will change over as well as setting the appropriate signal lights – to name just one possible scenario
 
The app is very responsive as can be seen in this (quite long) video Sariel made last year, testing the functionality of the app, including buttons, sliders and a game pad that allows controlling 2 motors linked to the X and Y positions on the pad:
 
 
Are you starting to see the differences?
 
Then let's look at what BSC can do. The BSC Control Center (that’s the name of the app app that is used to control the BSC unit or units - up to 7 units can be controlled at the same time, meaning you can use 42 outputs in a single scenario!) is the heart of the power of BSC and is what sets it aside. While the SBrick app allows you to create beautiful scenarios and controls, in essence those controls are only digital renderings of the physical controls LEGO provides with the standard Technic remote ("bang bang" control, that is on/off) and the Train remote (specific power level settings). While this can obviously also be done in the BSC Control Center, this app takes control to the next level by introducing programmable sequences.
 
Probably the easiest way to explain the implications of this system is by going back to Sariels Automated Trafficators System, a mechanical solution to make the indicator lights on motorised vehicles blink while it steered in the corresponding direction. His solution involved an M-motor and 3 polarity switches. The BSC Control Center allows you to do the same thing with a single control (button/slider/...). How? By setting up a sequence in the app by which each time you move the slider you have assigned to the steering mechanism is moved to the right not only the motor assigned to steering is turned on, but the lights on the side of the vehicle you steer towards start blinking. This means that with a single control you can set in motion several simultaneous or sequential actions.
 
The next step would be adding sensors to this mix. Unfortunately, MINDSTORMS sensors are quite bulky and incorporating an EV3 into a Technic model can be challenging at best. The size and power of BSC open up completely new avenues in this regard. Have a look at this short and very simple video of a lift, controlled by BSC. The carriage incorporates a magnet and there are reed switches on each floor level:
 
 
The BSC also works with an RFID sensor which can read transponder tags. You can see an excellent application of this principle in the video below in which the RFID sensor is used to detect the position of a train:
 
 
These are only the first of a series of sensors that are proposed by the BSC team. RFID is especially interesting for application in Train layouts as it allows you to know where each train is and progam sequences accordingly - starting and stopping trains automatically, think of signal lights, switch points, etc. But Hall sensors, light sensors, Reed switches and distance sensors can all be integrate with the BSC and programmed from the BSC Control Center.
 
The BSC is currently on Kickstarter, and his is their promotional video:
 
 

21305 • The Maze Review

Without a doubt, the old-school mechanical mazes, where one had to carefully navigate a ball through a treacherous path, were among the most common items on the children's Christmas wishlists for decades. While nowadays less common in their original wooden form, thanks to the LEGO Ideas programme they have recently been reincarnated as a new LEGO set.
 
If you are familiar with the originals, the similarity of their LEGO counterpart has surely not escaped you. The colours, the layout, the wheel controls at the sides, and even the rotating mechanism are precisely reconstructed, and offer the very same functionality.

LDraw All-In-One-Installer 2015-02

A new version of the All-In-One-Installer for LDraw has been release (2015-02), which contains pudated versions of a number of programs and the latest LDraw parts library. 
 
This is the full announcement::
 
An updated version of the LDraw[1] All-In-One-Installer, in short AIOI, has been released. 
 
The AIOI supports Windows XP (Home and Pro), Windows Vista or higher (all versions). On 64-Bit Operating Systems it will install in the "Program files (x86)" folder. The Installer will NOT run on Windows 95, 98, ME, NT Ver 4, 2000, or XP below SP2. 
It contains the following changes:
 
Upgraded to LDraw Parts Library 2015-02
Upgraded to LPub3D 1.3.4.591.2
Upgraded to LDCad 1.5
Added LSulpt 0.5.0
Added tons of OMR-Models
Lets you decide the location of the LDraw parts library
You can download the AIOI from: 
 
 
Many thanks to all the programmers who contributed to this release. 
 
Willy Tschager 
(LDraw.org Content Manager)
 
 
[1] LDraw is an open standard for LEGO CAD programs that allow the user to create virtual LEGO models and scenes. You can use it to document models you have physically built, create building instructions just like LEGO, render 3D photo realistic images of your virtual models and even make animations.

WeDo 2.0

 

CES (Computer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas is always an excellent reference and a showcase for the new technologies that will appear in the coming year. This year is no different. LEGO have just announced  a new product: WeDo 2.0

WeDo came to market in 2009, geared towards starting robotics with primary school children. The first version of WeDo had a USB tether or hub to which 1 motor and 1 sensor or 2 sensors could be connected. The software runs on a computer that acts as the brain of the gadgets that are built with LEGO elements that are mostly from the System catalogue (stackable rather modern "Technic").

Version 2.0, which was presented today, comes with several important updates to this earlier platform. The main novelty is the fact that the new hub is not tethered, but rather a kind of intelligent battery box (for standar batteries or a separately sold battery pack) which connects to the computer via BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy). 

This makes it possible to program the hub, not only via a computer, but also from a portable device (iPad/Android tablet) or even a Chrome Book (the latter in the second half of 2016).

 
Also new is the way motor and sensors connect to the hub. At first glance, the canbles already look wider than usual, but upon closer examintation it is clear to see that the connector type used is very similar to the one you see in MINDSTORMS. :
 
 
 
In the following image you can see all the electronic elements in the set: the hub, a new motor and two sensors. The sensors are said to be more advanced, but it remains to be seen whether that is because the software now includes options that were already available in Scratch or because they are really better.
 
 
The software for WeDo 2.0 can be downloaded free of charge, but LEGO also offers a paid curriculum pack with +40 hours of lesson plans.
 
It looks like the price of the new set will be around €160, which sounds quite good, taking into account the technological update, the fact that the software is now included and the larger number of elements that in the first WeDo set.

LDraw.org 2015-02 Parts update now available

 
We have received the following annoncement from the LDraw Team:
 
The 2015-02 LDraw[1] Parts update has been now been released. This adds 439 new files to the core library, including 218 new parts and 15 new primitives.
 
This update includes another batch of improved and corrected parts. This is largely due to the work of Roland Melkert with the 'libfix version' of LDCad. Significant effort has also been expended by Magnus Forsberg to inline dithered colour subfiles (a now obsolete technique).
 
Thanks are once again due to all the part authors who created or corrected parts for this release. The reviewers also play an important role in keeping files moving through the tracker and deserve just as much credit.
 
You can preview the new parts in 2015-02 here, download the zip-file update or Windows install package here. Alternatively you can use the LDView menu option File | Check for Library Updates... to install the update.
 
The LDraw Team
 
 
[1] LDraw is an open standard for LEGO CAD programs that allow the user to create virtual LEGO models and scenes. You can use it to document models you have physically built, create building instructions just like LEGO, render 3D photo realistic images of your virtual models and even make animations. 

Review - Bansky

Skyhorse publishing has brought out another LEGO & Art related book. In his new book "Bricksy – Unauthorised Underground Brick Street Art” the artist Jeff Friesen presents his personal vision of street art with a touch of ABS.
 
Bricksy presents a critical view of society that goes beyond merely reproducing works of art in lEGO: each of the creations adds another layer to the original work of art by street artist Bansky. With this extra touch, often between comical and caustic, Jeff Friesen's pictures become works of art in their own right.
 
The building style of the creations, although not the main aim of the book, is always of excellent quality. In addition, beneath each of the vignettes there is a thumbnail image of the original Bansky artwork that inspired it and often also a short caption. At the end of the book there is a complete list of Bansky originals with larger images and links to online locations where you can see them even bigger. There is also a FAQ with questions (and answers) about the creative process behind Jeff Friesen's photographs.
 
 
If you would like to see more of Jeff Friesen's work you can visit thebrickfantastic.com

LDraw.org 2015-01 Parts Update Now Available

The LDraw Team has sent out the following announcement:
 
The 2015-01 LDraw Parts Update has now been released. This update includes 502 new files in the core library, including 338 new parts and 34 new primitives.
 
This update includes an unusually large, but welcome, proportion of improved and corrected parts. This is largely due to the work of Roland Melkert with the 'libfix version' of LDCad. Significant effort has also been expended by Magnus Forsberg to inline dithered colour subfiles (a now obsolete technique). Most of the obsoleted subfiles will be released in a future update.
 
You can preview the new parts in 2015-01 and download the update from the Latest Parts page.
 
The LDraw Team
 
 
Want to know how to use these parts? Check out our step by step tutorials in the back issues of HispaBrick Magazine!

Review 41100 - Heartlake Private Jet

Heartlake city is expanding and part of that expansion includes a brand new airport. There are two sets in this section of Heartlake City, the Heartlake City Airport, which features a complete terminal and a large airliner, and the smaller Heartlake Privaye Jet that comes with a metal detector and x-ray luggage checkpoint. 
 
I’ve never been a big fan of LEGO planes in general – creating a realistic plane in many cases “requires” the use of very specific and very large parts. Take for example the wings of the passenger plane that comes with the airport (Bricklink #93541), a single piece that consists of both wings joined by a middle section. The Heartlake Private Jet also includes a couple of these larger parts, specifically for the cockpit and the tail section of the plane, though due to the smaller size of the plane they are of course also smaller. This kind of part does make the plane look more realistic, and there are smaller parts too that have an equally specific use: the engines to name one. Still, seeing those specific large parts in a set has always held me back from acquiring any of them. 
 
This time there was good cause for revamping our Heartlake layout and going with the holiday spirit of the moment we decided to give it a go. The single booklet that comes with the set starts with the smaller accessories to the set: the metal detector gate and the luggage checkpoint; two simple but very nicely designed elements that really make the set mode complete (even if private jet plane passengers are unlikely to have to go through either one of these security measures).
 
The little seat that comes with the luggage checkpoint once again drives home what to me is one of the biggest issues with the LEGO Friends minifigs: they can’t really sit down without falling off quite easily. My little helpers weren’t too bothered about this though: the seat was removed and security personnel will simply have to stand.
 
Construction of the private jet starts from the bottom up, and in this case the wings are built using several parts giving them a very nice look. The cockpit takes a single pilot, held in place in the standard LEGO Friends way, by means of a panel with center divider. The central section can take 2 VIP passengers in comfortable first class chairs placed opposite one another. The rear section is a mix between cargo area and kitchen for the flight attendant.
 
Oddly enough, the sticker that is applied to one of the panels that separate the passenger section from this service section is decorated with what looks like perfume bottles on a shelf. Some kind of food and drinks would have been more consistent with the kind of plane it is on. I can’t imagine being offered perfume at a discount during a private jet trip.
 
I complained about the engines of the plane, but that isn’t entirely accurate. They are actually made up of three separate parts and look absolutely great on the plane. I also loved the front landing gear which can swivel and so the plan can taxi comfortably to the runway.
 
Of course the ultimate test for the quality of any set is the reaction of its intended audience. Suffice it to say half of the population of Heartlake has been given a tour on the newly acquired plane and there is still a steady stream of passengers coming in every day. The set is an absolute success and a great addition to the diversity of Heartlake City.
 
 
 

Review - LEGO Power Functions Ideas Book

Yoshihito Isogawa is already a household name when it comes to clever LEGO Technic and MINDSTORMS contraptions. He gained international recognition in the AFOL community with his LEGO construction guide Tora No Maki[ [1]. nitially the book was published by Isogawa himself as a PDF file, but the book really became famous when No Starch published a print version in three volumes as The LEGO Technic Idea Book [2].
 
His next No Starch title was The LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 Idea Book, in which he applied the same principles used in his LEGO Technic book to the (limited) inventory of the LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 retail set 31313 [3]
 
This time Isogawa has prepared a two-volume set of books called The LEGO Power Functions Idea Book. In a sense the book is a cross between his original LEGO Technic Idea Book and the MINDSTORMS EV3 Idea Book, in the sense that on the one hand the setup of the book is heavily inspired on the former, and like the latter, most builds now also include an inventory of the parts that are necessary to build it. Even so, true to form, the book does not contain detailed building instructions of the models. Each model is built with pieces in a wide range of colours, making it easier to see what parts are used and how they are connected. Pictures from different angles of each build provide enough information to “reverse engineer” all of the contraptions for even the most inexperienced builder. Aside from the introduction the book has virtually no text. The images speak for themselves.
 

Review - Medieval LEGO

I’m a big Castle fan, so when I read that one of the new titles no starch press were releasing in September was “Medieval LEGO” I was even more curious to see the book than with many of their other excellent LEGO related titles. I have since received a copy of the book. So what is it all about? Well, this is the official description no starch press gives: 
 
Castles and kings, battles and treaties, famine and plague, intrigue and invasion!
 
Medieval LEGO takes you through real English history in the Middle Ages with a unique twist, with every event illustrated by a tiny little LEGO scene. With contributions by medievalists and scholars, this book brings medieval history to life in a fun, kid-friendly way.
 
Inside, you’ll learn about events like the Battle of Hastings, the chartering of Oxford University, and the signing of the Magna Carta. You’ll witness the Great Fire of London, the Black Death, and the Great Famine, and you’ll read about famous historical figures like Robin Hood, Richard the Lionheart, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William the Conqueror.
 
Grab your broadsword and turn the page to join the adventure.
 
My review
 
The book is a beautifully bound, 18x18cm, 124-page, hard-cover production. The format is quite different from other LEGO related books no starch has published. The books feels quite small which in a way gives it a special value: it almost feels like a little treasure to be kept on display on a coffee table (I’m going to need a couple more of those tables if they keep this up!). The book consists of a series of short descriptions of significant fact in the history of England. Each story is presented by a scholar – professors and teachers of medieval history – and is illustrated by one or more LEGO renditions of the fact that are described. 
 
 
The scenes are for the most part quite simple, but beautifully photographed scenes that don’t so much stand out for their complexity in terms of building techniques, but have the steady quality of a children’s story book. I can just picture this book sitting on my grandfather’s bookshelf, for him to read me one of the stories each time I visited him. 
 
 
Despite the attention to detail, and the care with which this book has been put together, taking a closer look I can’t help but feel something is missing. While the descriptions of the significant historical moments is obviously well researched, the book definitely isn’t a page turner. Some of the images are quite nice, but overall they also fail to attract my attention beyond the 5 minute read of your average coffee table book. Still, I’m keeping it on display! 
 
 

The LEGO Adventures Book 3

No starch press has a whole new series of LEGO related titles ready for release and HispaBrick Magazine kicks of its series of reviews with the LEGO Adventure Book 3. I’m a big fan of the series (as are my kids) and parts one and two left us hungry for more. 
 
The LEGO Adventure Book series has evolved quite a bit since the first part came out in 2013. The formula is still the same. Megs acts as our host and takes us from one scene to the next, visiting builder after builder. Chapters are introduced and tied together with brick built comic scenes that provide the entire book with a single story line, making it both fun to read (especially for kids) and an attractive reference for inspiration and techniques.
 
Comparing the three volumes, the building explanations have evolved very positively. They are becoming ever clearer (better contrasts and parts angles) and it’s increasingly easy to see what parts are needed to build each model. Most of the builds are explained using photographs of the physical part, but a few of the models are digital renders with ditto instructions. Each section uses a different colour to frame the pages, making it easy to find the part of the book you are looking for.
 
As with the previous two titles, the book has a little of everything, providing inspiration for different kinds of builders. In this edition Peter Reid shows how to build a space robot Birgitte Jonsgard and Craig Mandeville provide ideas for your LEGO City.
 
 
Stephan Sander (interviewed in HBM019) shows how to build cars in a larger scale and Jason Railton takes us to the Steam Fair. You can even learn to build your own food, courtesy of Alex Bidolak or a complete orchestra with the help of Matija Puzar!
 
 
I’m particularly enamoured with the first chapter with builder Patrick Bosman. No surprise there as I’m a fan of historical themes and Dutch to boot, but the replica of a street in the Dutch city of Dordrecht, including building instructions for a 17th-century house are beautiful while at the same time giving you the feeling “I can do this as well!” And that’s what these books are all really about: no over the top building techniques but lots of useful ideas and tips anyone can use to improve their own LEGO constructions.
 
 
For me the book is a must have, but only one of a series of titles I’ve set my sights on. Want to know more about upcoming LEGO related books? My next review will be in HispaBrick Magazine 023 in just a couple of weeks.
 

Review: 60092 Deep Sea Submarine

The new deep sea exploring subtheme expands the horizons of the City theme to include the bottom of the sea. It has been several years since we last saw divers of this typeand even more if we only look at Town/City sets. The first wave of this subtheme consists of 6 sets and the 60092 Deep Sea Submarine is a perfect starter. The two smaller sets are little more than minifig packs with accessories and the two largest sets are more than double or triple the price of this one. In addition, the entire action of this set takes place below sea level..

Let's have a closer look at the contents...

Review 21119: The Dungeon (Minecraft)

As a complete Minecraft novice I had to let my daughters put me up to speed about this “exciting universe” of what some have called “unending virtual LEGO”. My first encounter has been through the 21119 – The Dungeon set.

With 219 parts this is the smallest set in this year’s LEGO Minecraft lineup. As is to be expected in this theme, the bricks included in the set are mostly basic – lots of 2x2, 2x4 and some larger bricks as well as a fair amount of plates. There are some “special” bricks though, including a number of small printed plates and tiles to build the mini zombie that goes in the cage (spawner as I learned reading up on the game) and a second one with the spare parts. The set does, however, come with three minifigures – Minecraft style. The square heads of Steve and the two zombies fit well with the Minecraft theme, but don’t feel quite “LEGO”.

No Starch - Humble Bundle 2

No Starch Press, publisher of a wide range of LEGO related books, has teamed up with Humble Bundle (again!) to provide the new Humble "Scholl's Out" Bundle -  a selection of ebooks designed to keep kids (and adults) busy and interested during the holidays. In adddition to books on Arduino, Scratch and Linux, the promo includes The Art of LEGO Design, The LEGO Adventure Book, Vol. 2, The Unofficial LEGO Technic Builder's Guide, and the LEGO MINDSTORMS EV3 Discovery Book.

 

Review 31031 - Rainforest Animals

31031 Rainforest Animals is one of those new sets that immediately make you think "cute!" LEGO has been offering sets with built animals for a long time, but some of these sets have a special something that make you like them even more..

In part this is due to the colour palette  which works really well with the kind of animals that were chosen and also the obvious character of the parrot that adorns the front of the box addds to the interest of the set.