Jan. 8, 2014 at 3:21 PM ET
Picking up the robotic cubes that make up Modular Robotics' remote-control cars, sound-activated lights and other miscellaneous doodads brought on a sense of wonder and creativity I haven't felt for years. Each cube has a different function, and putting together a device of my imagination was as much a joy as it was a puzzle. Are robotic building blocks this decade's LEGO?
Modular Robotics is coming off a successful Kickstarter campaign that ended in December, raking in over three times the initial $100,000 goal. Since then the MOSS blocks have received a redesign, and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is one of their first public appearances.
I was skeptical at first — several of these robot assembly setups have been disappointing, either too simple or too complex. But as soon as I tried my hand at a simple device I found myself engrossed. How best to connect the green battery block to the hinge so that the sensor block can reach it? Should I get a flexible blue pass-through piece or try to keep the structure rigid?
Trying out different configurations was as easy as popping the pieces off each other; they have tiny magnets in every corner (embedded in the plastic, so no choking hazard), and putting steel bearings between those divots allows cubes to rotate around each other or attach securely. Before long I'd made a functional, and totally useless, light-activated hinge, then a quick swap made it a sense range instead.
"It's teaching kids about programming, and they don't even know it," said CEO Eric Schweikardt. And it's true: a kid playing with these has to think not just about what pieces he or she wants to stack, but also the order and orientation, to allow power or information to flow between.
That's simple enough when you're building a machine with one moving part, but what about a remote-controlled (by tablet) car, with a proximity-sensing brake and headlights? That's not so easy — but there are many successful designs you could create, and as I looked at the one Schweikardt was driving, I was already thinking of additions or improvements of my own.
Right now the team is working on getting the first bundles out to its Kickstarter supporters, but you can pre-order any of the sets at their webpage. At $150 for the basic bundle and $400 for the advanced one, it's not cheap, but a technically-minded kid (or parent) would find these endlessly fun — to say nothing of a classroom of elementary or middle-schoolers.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.