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

Monday, February 27

DADDY ? can you see me Daddy....


sprocket2cog


In a little shack down the back of sprocket2cog a little robot has been getting his head hacked good .The sound of cracking plastic filled the air and the V2's face fell free to the floor exposing his camera and eys to the world...oh the pain.... with a quick flick of the wrist and some more creaks and groans the rest of his head was soon following the face, planting themselves on the floor...(face plant ?) now the real fun begin's , taking a roll of tape and some padding I procceded to wrap his throat in a constricting bind to hold his head high when it went on, the plastic wrapping needed to create a friction joint with his new cranium.
Next We placed the inside of a roll of aluminium foil ( read carboard tube) over his neck and fed the camera and brainboard through to make sure we wouldnt get caught out later.
Now with a size reference to cut a hole in our head we went to work, sawing and grinding away at a large foam ball, ears eyes and nose portals were cut and a space for his camera and additional power support carved from the soft fleshy foam that would soon be alive, ALIVE I TELL YOU....
felt was layed inside to protect from static in the foam and damage from dropping him and gluded in with a hot glue gun...bad idea , within seconds of the heated goo touching his head holes appeared as if an allergic reaction was occuring, who would have thought a plastic robot that cant take the heat...
Plan "B" out with the liquid nails a sort of intoxicating contact glue that melts and binds foam together in a predictable way, nice, Adding pieces cut from smaller balls. and a strap from some broken headphones completed his ears with some nice looking headphones,now we just had to wait for it to dry.
Next day we took his little head back off and raced it down to our spray bay and hit it with a coat of paint ready for the final color and finish to be added.
YELLOW YELLOW YELLOW. well after painting it black, green white and the yellow, we decided to stay with the yellow, that and if we got anymore coats of paint on it the V2 was nt going to lift his head up from all that weight, Ill have to tell him hes not that good..!
Anyway next step we decided to make him have a removable skull section so we can tickle his sensors and play with his parts easier, so we mounted magnets from dissected H-Drives (hyper drive ?) and placed several on the head sections with contact pins in the top half to hold it on, it works great if he doesnt fall over , which he does often, sending his skull flying across the room.
The sensors are free mounted under the felt or with blutack adhesive for easy removal if needed and i might have to add some red eys aswell . the power board is to supply 3 volt power to a FET and addtional power in the head later, so it dosnt draw more power.
so a few days work and painting and the hew head is on and functioning, now what......

LIFE ON THE ROBOT FARM


sprocket2cog
Well im busy at the moment what with testing robodance 3 software and redesigning the website on top of the robot hacks and projects on the fly, add that to the air hockey table i repaired and there isnt much time left for writing articles. Im going to start adding more content in the next few weeks to the sites but first i need to finalise the new look and style for the site so it looks the part. y V2 head hack is done with it now looking like a cross between pacman and the latest version of MARVIN fromm hitch hikers guide , the movie. I created a monster by crossing his sensors so he ignores you when tracking objects actually looking the wrong way and then jokingly saying tracking when theres nothing there... Im working on some designs for 90 degree bricks for the viper as well as adaptors for adding experimental project elements. stay tuned for more hacks hints and heaps of other good bits. sprocket

Monday, February 13

SAPIEN RADIO STATION HACK.


sprocket2cog
Ive installed the cutdown FM radio transmitter into the back area of the sapien, near the speaker so it leaves the torso empty for future haks. Ive added an old aerial from a incar mobile phone kit and just have to build an interface board so i can add plugs to the speaker etc to hack into the signal. Im making the board and another one for 9 volt step down to 6 and 3 for extra sensors. maybe even a 5 volt regulated source for the viper basic stamp prototyping system from microbric. The next thing to do is add an mp3 player to him as well and then hack an fm reciver into the audio of the laptop so i can hear him though the blutooth headset im using with the robodance program with its new voice control, we are still alpha testing it so hang on a while while robert the curator of evosapian and the programmer of dancemachine to finish the bug fixes.

V2 UNSCREWED UNGLUED & STRIPPED


sprocket2cog
So you want to see in side your V2 robosapien from wowwee but dont know what to do next in your quest to find the hacky grail ( yeah I know bad pun..) not sure what to do first, well you have found the right place.... first things first follow the photos and the steps below to get your sapien showing its guts... Then your ready for drastic surgery to his plastic or parts as you see fit.
Here we go, screwdrivers ready ? ok..GO..
  1. locate the six screws in the back of his chest section (back even.) two in each shoulder and four more down the sides of the torso.
  2. 2remove them and put them aside , they are all the same screw type so no hassles mixing these up.
  3. now remove the front of his chest, the back is still held on by more screws inside him.
  4. Now using the phots as a guide locate the four screws holding the back to the chassis and the two screws that hold the shoulder springs to it as well, take out the shoulder springs and the chassis screws and place them aside, be carefull releasing the springs you cant replace our own eyes just yet.
  5. Now carefully remove the back as the speaker and power switch are still attached, undo the cables on the main board to the back using a small screwdriver to release the glue, all the 2 plugs appear glued, this is most likly to reduce returns due to loose plugs from rough shipping.
  6. now remove the black panel in the back where you pick it up, this will allow you to attach more controllers and sensors to him and run the cables during prototyping in to the hole .
  7. now store all the parts and plan your hacks.
welcome to the world of the naked robot....

Friday, February 10

GET A REAL JOB


sprocket2cog
Well it may seem like its been quiet on the outside of the labs, but wipe some grime off the windows and peer in and the sight will amaze and dumbfound you.. So heres a breif of the current projects that are on the bench .
  • viper 2 sapien, emulating ir codes on the viper
  • Mana bionicle lego remote unit hack 2 ??? (not sure yet :P)
  • Sapien auto on from trigger (remove power switch)
  • Alpha testing robodance version 3.
  • SEGWAY style bot upgrades.
  • 4X4 line tracker skid steer high torque hill climber.
  • raptor walking programs (current RCX, future viper or NXT)
  • Chicken walker leg design and prototypeing.
As you can see, we are busy at the moment so it may ( read WILL) take time to get more detailed posts out, keep your eyes o here for releases of where we are up to. We have finished hacking the nose into the v2 and removed his eyes as ell, the mouth IR reciever has also been moved to the face plate and this greatly increased its object tracking to the point its annoying, about 3 feet is easy for him now if the reflection is good. Hmmm now where did I put that little mouse...here mousey, mousey mousey...

Monday, February 6

SEGWAY CLONE PROJECT VIPER


sprocket2cog
Well having tried to do a segway style bot in lego and failing I decided to give it another go with the viper kit and see if it was possiable to get a working imitation working. I have a video and pics and the program is up in the microbric forums over at www.microbric.com in the viper program section. Ill add this bot and the code to the new viper site Im working on as well.

Friday, February 3

FIRST VEIWS OF VIPER

sprocket2cog
Well it`s been a while waiting, ( my fault not their`s.) But finally I have got my actuator`s on the viper robotics experiment and prototype kit.
A mix of old school and new world techno-goodies,just waiting to be "POKED and PEEKED" into a free roaming - line tracking - bot fighting machine, But does it cut it in the real world ?
Only time will tell, but for now after a false start with one of the motors I would have to say the pro`s so far outway the con`s.
The viper is a Australian made robotics kit in a vein very similar to lego, but requiring more skill and dexterity to assemble, The addition of a magnetic screwdriver would greatly aid in assembly and deconstruction of your models.
One of the reasons I liked the viper was its openess and honesty about the tech behind the the mouse behind the man that made the snake..(or something like that :) The robot it`s self is totally uninclosed, with all the boards and circuits in plain veiw for the budding electronic engineer to have a look at, but the use of SMD (surface mount devices) and creative motherboard design means that deciphering the layout of the boards isnt as easy as I first thought. Break out the magnifing glass plebs, you will need it if you want to read the parts on the main board.
Over all the finish and quality is of a high standard with only a few minor issues in regards to the box and software bring the first point score down to 8 out of ten.
Heres a quick breakdown of what I thought after Two hours playing last night..
  1. The software installed and ran first go on windows XP pro running on a laptop, no hassles like legos mindstorms set, it crashed on my xp laptop weekly, untill a patch was realised from lego. (which they did do)
  2. the design and construction quality is of a high grade, with computer cut boards and soldering to the componets giving the parts a "I COME FROM SPACE" feel about them.
  3. Breakout time to get it ready to program was a little long due to some parts not wanting to come out of the box.
  4. The programing IDE is great even if some of the features arnt documented in the help. like using the program as an oscilloscope (look in tools in the menu)
  5. The programing, while it is old school, and dosent support some basic things like using maths on user variables, you need to build stacks and add them one after the other to a new variable for example to get addition to two variables., Nothing you cant work around, and it also helps develope a sense of awarness in regards to programing and the idiosyncrices of robtics and computers in general.
  6. The motors are very cool, with what looks like a h bridge or similar built on to the motor it`self, the main board has minimal components on it, as all the sensors have their own electronic support architechture built onto them, smart sensors in a way, but not too smart.
Well thats it for now, ill write up more and do a photo shoot tonight..
The viper, once bitten infected for life..Dont tell my sapien V2 but hes got some competition.
So if your looking to break into robotics and want instant results, you could do a lot worse then this kit , and if the product range expands as expected then this company may be set to invade the world. long live the robots.
I have to say that the fun level of this robot set outways the little issuse that popped up, the biggest dissapointment was a frozen motor, but a quick trip down to dick smith had me a new one, and micro bric support always is helpful if the retail outlet isnt. Josh at tech support is always looking out for his customers , and will bend over backwards to make sure any issues are addressed.
So now having a few parts to play with Im off to invent new toys to take over the world..
asta la vista baby...