ROBOT KITS AND TECHNO GLITZ

Growing up, I read more Jane Austen than science fiction, and spent hours dreaming of the elegant past. But now, with more and more articles detailing the leaps and bounds in robotics (some good, some bad). I’ve started to prick up my ears. If our world will soon contain robot nurses for the elderly and robot tanks with remote-control guns, I need to start learning more about robotics.

A robot kit seemed the best way to start, so I checked out three: the Parallax Boe-Bot, the Lego Mindstorms Robotics Invention System 2.0, and a kit based on the book 123 Robotics Experiments for the Evil Genius. Each has its strong points; the choice is really about how you like to learn. I also heard about two kits in development: the Cricket and the Vex Robotics Design System.

Parallax’s Boe-Bot is the classic workhorse of the bunch, powered by two wheels with separate servo motors, and programmable in BASIC. Once assembled, it looks like a small tank, with with its squat metal chassis supporting the printed circuit board. Boe-Bot’s thick instruction manual slowly takes you through simple mechanics and the basics of, well, BASIC — spending a sadistically long time on preliminaries before having you actually start building.

But once you do get the hang of things, there is something magical about commanding those whirring servos by typing on the screen, and it makes the actions of your little creature very real. The Boe-Bot is a great way to learn both robot- building and programming, and the experience will teach you to appreciate roboticist Rodney Brooks’ words from Fast Cheap, and Out of Control: “Don’t try to control the robot, but feel how the world is going to control the robot.»

If you want to build your robot from scratch, family-run Hobby Engineering sells all the components used in Mike P. Robotics Experiments for the Evil Genius. This book (which already comes with its own printed circuit board) is completely charming. P. starts out with robot structures and basic electrical theory, then gets into the more serious stuff: opto- and audio-electronics, digital logic, sequential logic, sensors, and finally, programming. Like the Boe-Bot (and other Parallax offerings), Mike’s design centers around a BASIC Stamp 2 microcontroller.

The book is nominally for kids, but there’s no sacrifice of intelligence or quality of information. Building Mike’s robot is far more time than starting with the Parallax kit, and you’ll have to solder and cut plywood. But the end product is completely yours. If you truly want to learn how to build a robot, this is the way.

Beyond Basic Bots. Lego: Candy-Colored Robots

Lego Mindstorms tries to make every step as colorful and exciting as possible: they even apologize for the plain box that the kit is shipped in. Inside, it’s the treasure chest you dreamt of as a child, each compartment filled with a high-SATA puddle of Legos. Vivid diagrams show you various bot incarnations you can snap together, and I assembled six before bothering with any programming (sometimes I like my dessert first). Then I listened to the instructional software’s excessively cheery narrator explain how to script in RCX, which isn’t any more interesting than learning BASIC, but is a lot prettier.

In RCX, you literally drag language components together to build series of instructions. Representing common code elements as icons like this makes the process quick and intuitive. This great if you only want an IF > THEN > GOTO understanding of robotics, but you won’t be learning a real programming language.

The Mindstorms website hosts a great forum

By the time this article goes to press, RadioShack will have released its Vex Robotics Design System, a programmable robot kit with over 500 parts, including a six-channel radio controller, three variable-speed motors, multiple gears and wheel types, and a configurable chassis. It looks like an Erector set on steroids. And Playful Invention Company is introducing its Cricket kit, which builds interactive sculptures, musical jewelry, and other things that control light, color, music, and sound. It’s more of a multimedia kit than a strict robotics offering, but it might bring a new audience into the fold.

And that fold is one of the nicest parts of learning about robots: roboticists are enthusiastic and eager to help. If we’re destined to share more of our lives with robots, that’s a very good thing.

I got hooked on “high-tech” several years ago, as I became fascinated with the intricacy and cleverness of design involved in getting a mechanical device to precisely and repeatedly “tick» despite variations in temperature, gravity (i.e. position), and maintenance.

Mechanical watches seem almost alive compared to their digital counterparts, offering aesthetic interest and longevity in place of the extreme accuracy and cheaper-to-buy-new-than- repair approach of their quartz cousins.

Mechanical watches are also accessible to the amateur. A small set of tools and some practice are all that you need to master basic watchmaking skills. A practical use of these skills is customizing the look of a watch to your exact requirements or style preferences, which brings us to the family of watches based on the Seiko 7S26 movement.

This rugged, fairly accurate mechanical movement features a self-wind mechanism, day, date, and the usual hour, minute, and second hands.

Aesthetically, the kindest thing that can be said of it is “unremarkable.” A product of machine finishing and largely robotic assembly, it’s not going to make any watch enthusiast light-headed when opening the back. But that also engenders one of its greatest strengths: it’s cheap! New

7S26-based watches start as low as $50 on eBay, with the high-end retail for some fancier models only around $300.

Used in everything from the small “SNX427″ military series of watches to massive mechanical diver’s watches, the 7S26 has been in production for years and has spawned a modest number of after-market dials and other bits.

Shown in the photo is a modified 7S26-power Seiko diver’s watch. I picked up the base watch for under $100 on the used market. The dial and hands were purchased from a company in Pennsylvania and are based on a Vietnam-era military design. The stock mineral glass crystal was replaced with an anti-glare sapphire version, which is almost impossible to scratch.

The case and bracelet were bead-blasted to remove the stock shiny chrome plating. The bead-blast process leaves a utilitarian matte finish to the underlying stainless steel and is often mistaken for titanium.

If you’d rather build a watch up from scratch, there are several firms that can supply you with cases, bare movements, hands, and dials. Usually designed for repair work, these parts are relatively easy to bring together in a unique, inexpensive “Franken watch” with a little practice.

The easiest way to get started in amateur watchmaking is to take an online course or study with an instructor, if you’re lucky enough to have a training facility nearby. Then, pick up a few cheap mechanical watches at garage sales or flea markets to practice on. Don’t expect to repair your first finds; just learning to disassemble and reassemble them is rewarding enough initially and will teach you what you need to know to parts-swap properly fitted hands and dials.

Retro gaming is the latest craze, and Mammoth Toys is letting people rediscover 20-year-old video games by making a joystick that mimics 30 classic Commodore 64 games, including Par- android, Uridium, Impossible Mission, and World Championship Karate. It plugs right into your television — no console required. QVC sells the C64 DTV (Direct-to-Television) joystick for $30.

At a buck a game, it’s a real bargain.

The ASIC chip at the heart of the DTV simulates the original C64 while doubling the RAM and offering 16 times the color palette. (That’s 128K and 256 colors.) But there’s far more to the DTV, thanks to a development team that clearly was not satisfied with just software bonuses. They loaded the DTV with undocumented hooks and features, and, not surprisingly, the toy has a cult following of Commodore-happy joystick.

Without even cracking the case you can boot the joystick up in C64 mode, run “secret” games, find numerous Easter eggs, and summon an onscreen keyboard that lets you write and run BASIC programs from the C64 command line.

And if you pull the DTV apart and look inside, you’ll see that the circuit board is littered with helpful labels and unused, hack-inviting solder pads. On the C64 DTV hacking forums that have sprung up online, people exchange notes on all sorts of modifications, from enhancing the audio to up a flash memory module. In short, the C64 DTV is a hacker’s dream: a Commodore 64 for the 21st century. Is it any wonder that the C64 community is excited about this thing?

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