Tuesday, February 28

ONCE BIT-N TWICE SHY

MICROBRIC VIPER AND THE MINDSTORM NXT/RCX COMPARISION
sprocket2cog 2006

So you have decided to buy a robotics control and prototype system and having no real idea what to buy you go to your local dick smith store (hey this is for Aussie buyers ok !!) , and find the mindstorms and microbric range to drool over as several hundred dollars burns a hole in your pocket.
What to do now, read the box ,look at the pictures and then act on impulse...(if your like me at all) so at first glance standing in the shop you have to decide what to get.

This means that only a few things need to be considered at this stage.

price versus parts count.
package appeal and infomation
age group and intended end use.

so lets look at the first list and break it down for you.
PRICE AND PARTS COUNT
The lego RCX and viper kits avalible at the moment are similar in price but the parts count is greater for the lego, but this dosent mean it actually has more chance of being the best solution to your robot designs and ideas, this is often overlooked at the chance to get more parts for your dollar.
LEGO has a large range of parts to choose from and the simplest packs bionicles etc start under 10 dollars, the viper cant match this yet with the line tracker kit at around 30 dollars the cheapest parts options.

LEGO PARTS COUNT AND PRICING- RETAIL APROX $250-300 WITH OVER SEVEN HUNDRED PARTS

VIPER PARTS COUNT AND PRICING- RETAIL APROX $200 WITH AROUND 200 PARTS ( MAINLY SCREWS AND NUTS )


PACKAGING AND PRODUCT OVERVIEW

Next is the physical appearence of the two.Both boxes are very similar in color and size, untill you pick them up, the lego box is bigger and heavier and with its foldout guide on the front offers more for the buyer to puruse and drool over..That with its larger range of model types like the arm and sorter etc, mean that you are more likely to look at the lego kits as a good start for a range of diffrent models to build and greater flexabillity ,if you want extra parts to play with, buy some lego cars or small kits and dress up the rcx into a new style that easy, something the viper lacks.
But the downside of this is that it still looks like lego.

The viper box is also well designed but needs more care to stop the parts moving inside and hiding the cpu or the front needs to be solid with no inside showing, The simularties between the two is striking to say the least (did someone say clone ?). This is a good thing as it brings a sort of standard to the robot kit market and reinforces the overall finish and status by saying this is in the same eague as the big boys.
some issues with viper packing include the following
The back needs to include a bigger parts list and maybe closeup images of the motors etc so we can see the tech used ,mention the fact you use high intensity LEDs and pwm motors, show them the parts they get to play with.
Also talk up how much the programming in basic is easy to learn and has potential to control the hardware in ways no other kit allows, like hardware pulse width modulation or serial out for other system control, and show the remote on the box, its cool.
add firefox browser to the required system list on the side as well as IE ,then it shows you support open development and as most robot hobbiests have some acsess or background in open source or linux it fuels their fire against big bussines..
small point i know but its all about the inroads.

AGE - END USE
The lego says twelve years but with the rise of computers in schools my 8 year old even had a go with the lego. the viper with its sharp points and text based programming as opposed to the lego icon style means its more likly to end up lego as the choice forprimary aged kids and the viper for teens and adults. but the added models like arms is a big point in favour of lego, the box seems to say if you want to learn to build lots of differnet types of robots, lego can do it But the viper seems to say. lets build mobile mouse type robots.More suited to those in tghe know like sumo and line trackers, they are exsisting robot compotions and appeal to uni students and teens in the know.

overall the $80 dollar price differance on the lego is out weighed by the parts count and added models like the inventorbot or the scanner mean that its about 45% to the viper and 55% to the RCX if its impulse buying.
But this would go to equal standings if people vist the sites and do some reading first.
Talk to someone with both and unless they have no mechanical skill either then the viper would be my choice for anyone over 12 or thirteen.
But for anyone wanting to learn mechanical design and prototyping or want to play with the kids still in preschool. lego all the way.

WHATS IN THE BOX ?
So having come homw with both kits to see if I am right or not :P you open them up and decided to see if you can get you first test project going. So tgaking your clone you each sit down and breakout the parts..first signs of trouble appear five minutes later on both fronts.hers what I think.
First the viper, Looks good all blue appears to be easy to unpack and get ready to use until you try to get the peices out of the board, the CD help says that the parts should push out easy but this wasnt the case with a small saw file or power tool needed to free the sensors safely. Add to this the need to insert the nuts into the bricks and the breakout time blew out to an hour or or so but this included installing the software which is easy to find install and get running.
The lego on the other hand had proplems of its own (some addressed in the new NXT sets) and not the least is the fact that the standard CD software often failed in an XP enviroment. Add the fact that the RCX itsself is a giant brick and it all looks more complex then on the box means that your not sure at this point which kit is the best. time to dive deeper.
Time to program and build your first test.
The viper led test was simple to set up and try and the design of the boards make it fun to work with giving a sort of science fiction or university project feel to it all, first hour of playing with the viper had the bumpbot built and programmed and pulled apart again to try a new robot.
so 2 hours is really needed to have fun with the viper for the first time.
The lego from memory as its been a while since i opened one took about 20 mins to get ready, ten on the install and then the fun started a simple test was easy to do but building the models in the book took several hours to build the first one and tghat didnt include installing firmware into the rcx which you will shortly discorver needs to be reinstalled every five minutes as the batteries fall out too easily. lego looses points here.
first few hours gives the viper the edge in fun out of the box but now we start to see the limitations of the sets and what the boxes dont say. some of it good a little of it not so good.
on to the next section

LIMITATIONS
After a a late night building bot's you now start to see the dark sides of your new kits and wonder if you really should have gone to the net and researched the sets first. both have a niche and both have shortfalls but most can be overcome.
Firstly the lego isnt as easy to build new robots as you really wanted, its complex to get cool strong robots working and the bugs in the gui mean it gets fustrating to use after a few days and you realise that you need to read and learn some more.but thats when you start to find out about the underground side hacks and software not in the box, like new firmware sensor hacks and multiplexing rcxs to get bigger systems etc.
All of a sudden theres a whole bag of fun out there to play with and the limitations of lego are overlooked again for a while.
The microobric kit on the other hand has similar problems with you realising that asic is a little diffrent from 15 years ago and the viper needs some programming skills like syntax understanding and flow. time to hit the net as well. The Web site has great content but is a little hard to find where it is, some things like the help pdf files should be under support as should a faq.
You realise the viper construction isnt as versitile as you wanted with no way to place sensors in diffrent angles to see walls or such and the non magnetic screwdriver is getting you ready to throw the screws across the foom.
But you realise now having read more that with things like 16 user settable ports and sleep mode and extra commands like serial port control means you suddenly arent in kansas anymore.
this little blue board is one wolf in sheeps clothing.
now the fun starts.

THE FUTURE.OUTLOOK
Lego has moved into its next phase with a whole raft of new issues and challenges but they alreday have a great user support base. The new icon software is more powerfull and the new consstructions like the android or scorpion are crowd pullers.
Microbric while only a new player has certainly played a good first hand and if the expected new parts come out on a bi yearly basis maybe then all is set to let the viper corner the system prototype market.New led colors added parts and new senors like sound and ultrasonics would increase the market share.
microbric has more room to expand into other markets as it dosent look like toy.

FINAL OVERVEIW AND LISTS.
Even though at first glance the viper and mindstorm kits are very similar, they really arent at all, each sliding into its own niche, Lego with its range of extra parts including pnumatics and heaps of shapes and colors make it perfect for real 3D robots like androids and arms as well as customizing models in new colors of styles.
Its program interface makes it quick and easy to trial new ideas but does limit end results a little.
Avaliability of the motors sensors and cpu from lego online as indivuial units is grreat for added support and the abillity to let them (the rcx's) talk easily to each other makes expansion of memory and ports easy.
The viper kit is aimed at he other corner with a greater emphisis on program function and electronic components and how to build exsisting robot styles like sumo bots in time frames not normally considered long enough.
This with its open design makes it ideal for people wanting to learn how to buid their own sensors and later even add the viper into real robots as the brain.
It really dosent play on the same field as the lego. Its got more potential as a controller but needs more parts and such to compete against the mechanical enginnering side of lego or even paralax construction kits like the scout walker or arm kit.
but on a sensor and output count, viper wins due to its programabillity of the hardware amd the potential to add your own sensrs later means pinball score board or remote moniter systems could be developed.
so now to sum it up ill try to directtly compare aspects of the microbric and lego in list form.
VIPER PROS
very cool looking
fast to use overall
advanced programming
debugging
high quality parts not plastic
exploitable architechture opens new learning pathways
discreate markings make it great for third party prototype's or one off projects.
stronger construction with screws

LEGO pros
multiple program slots
heaps of parts to choose from
GUI programing enviroment makes programming very quick
configurability of lego is really high
Ability to build heaps of diffrent roboclasses, ie mobile rovers, arms devices etc out of the box.
Sensors are intergrated into the program code, so no need to spend time learning syntax for each.
large archive of models and mechanisums exsist all over the net to draw from
Parts avaliable online indiviually so easy to add new parts, or CPU's direct from lego and other sources like educational experience in sydney.
new parts comming out yearly from lego in the form of new kits, not robots but new parts none the less.

VIPER CONS
not very mechanical in nature.
limited to planular designs with no real vertical abillity. ie 90deg anglees etc
limited parts in base kit to build diffrent robot classes.
No inbuilt screen for checking out stuff.
no easy way to link CPU's to build bigger brains.

LEGO CON's

looks a bit childish
limited port control and setup -rcx 3 in 3 out NXT 3 out four in
firmware needs reinstalling often
compatabilty with OS not always good.
icon based API is limited by avaliable commands and perameters like time as it cant emulate pulse width or Baud rates.
construction of robots isnt as intuative as first thought.

FINAL ASSEMENT
So what does it all mean?
Well reaaly the two products are totally diffrent as far as robots go. yes you can make similar robots at the get go but each kit branches into its own tangent sooner then later.
Lego is ideall for kids and adults with no prior building skills and limited programming knowledge,, with its multitude of mechanical parts and icon software It makes for a fun night in even if you have problems with building the model.

The viper in its own corner stands its ground as a serious player aimed at electronics and programming students and hobbiests and has the potential to spill into serious system control and remote applications with a little skill and learning.

THE FUTURE OF MICROBRIC
Focusing on the future of the microbric range and possiable application areas we find the viper is useful for the control of larger systems then the rcx and nxt but is limited by its lack of wireless communication between units. The modular design could allow for small blister packs of sensors and parts to be put together and the mainboard could also be sold seperatly for more advanced users chasing brains for exsisting robots like wowwee robosapien or smaller kits like linetracker and avoider bots at dick smith.
Sales of parts could out way sales of full kits if the potential to use the viper as a system controller is fully realised by consumers. And new cpus with analogue ports would stimulate new sales if the intergrated models or projects are really thought out and pushed.
Think red boards for team sports like sumo or soccer bots.
Add some printed documentation like a quick start guide and showcase the modules some more to really stress the diffrences and advantages over lego and then a new market share arises.
Releasing small packs of one sensor and a brick or two every 6 to 12 months will stimulate sales and supplement the revenue from the core kit. while giving endusers the chance to customize thier bots cheaply and easily, giving them more satisfaction and ultimatelly want to buy more :)
Looking at the big picture , i see two possible directions that the microbric range can take, The first is as a system controller with the addtion of new main boards with addtional inbult support such as dc power ports and analoge to digital implimentation. this would mean the creation of several core main kits with addtional packs for upgrading.
The second use`s the exsisting board and more mechanical modules to increase the config to include arms legs and cranes., addtional sensors could also include user prototype boards for building our own add ons.
some ideas include ;
FACTORY SYSTEMS AND AUTOMATION (conveyer systemsgantrys and robot parts assembly)
GAME AND ENTERTAINMENT CONTROL ( points scoring, timers and logic maybe voice regocnition )
ARMS AND LEGS ( appendage and actuator kit for hands and arms)
CIRCUIT TESTING AND PROTOTPE KIT (logic probe program and more....)
ENVIROMENT AND WEATHER ( temp humidity and compass sensors....analoge to digital convertor.)

LEGO NXT THE FUTURE
With the pending release of the NXT brick it's only fitting that we talk a little about its future as it's release is so close to the start of viper sales and future mcrobric releases.
The NXT is legos latest offering for robophiles and addresses many issues for endusers that were evident in the RCX forums and websites. Firts thing is the addition of a larger screen and bluetooth to the unit giving it better data display functions and increased communication range and wireles reprogramming.
New bricks allow 3d structures to be built intuitivlly and the added voice regcognition is a boon for robotists everywhere.
the NXT will be ideal as a base for a home companion robot with voice control ultrasonics and color vision support.(color light sensor not camera) .Its not ideal for data logging as lego looks set once again to hold this back for educational users who buy addtional software upgrades.
With no direct way to allow the rcx to talk to the nex nxt lego made a mistake as the old units are still ideal for lots of applications.
lego is still going to hold the lionshare due to entrenched learning curves in schools but a push though robocup contests may increase use of viper control systems across the countrys schools,With out addtional chassis releases and added modules for arms and legs the viper may not reach its intended market with much venom left,

QUICK GUIDE ( really quick!)
lego 60% , plastic parts, but lots of them,(new nxt is set to give us more sensors etc)
viper 40% due to steeper learning curve and limited chassis design options, more drive systems needed as well as more sensors for ranged observations.

LEGO- mechanical prototyping and design systems
MICROBRIC- circuit design and system control implementations
LEGO- mechanical prototyping and design systems easy to build mechanical systems
MICROBRIC- circuit design and system control implementations easy to build circut designs and controllers

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