Thursday, August 31, 2006

Is it HiTechnic or Lego?

To paraphrase the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte: Ceci n’est pas une brique LEGO! (this is not a LEGO brick).

It is the new compass sensor by HiTechnic, that I obtained from them for testing. I’ll be writing about that in my next posts. But take a good look at these pictures. It looks like a Lego brick, the plastic feels like a Lego brick. I have tested the sensor, and I can confirm it works like a Lego brick. And it will sell via Lego@Home. Can you find the difference between a HiTechnic and a LEGO brick?

Deep Collaboration

As you can see from the images, LEGO and HiTechnic are doing something unique here: HiTechnic selects the NXT sensor/multiplexer/... bricks they feel the set is missing the most. They do all of the research and development to prototype the selected NXT brick. Up to this point, things are very similar to the way they were in the past, and still are with some other suppliers. But then something unique happens: LEGO provides HiTechnic with NXT plastic parts, it certifies the HiTechnic brick, and then helps HiTechnic to sell the brick.

So LEGO actually supplies the housing, the connectors, etceteras, to HiTechnic. HiTechnic "only" needs to produce the parts that are unique to their sensor. In the case of the compass, this is the black cap on the front, and off course the electronics inside. When I say "only", remember that the parts must match the LEGO system exactly, and that HiTechnic needs to mold the plastic to the high (child-friendly) standards of LEGO. Since molding high-quality plastic is only financially efficient when making few ten thousand or more units, this must represent a large investment on HiTechnic's side. And off course the electronics must behave just like the user would naturally assume they work, it must be electrically safe, etceteras. So the R&D needs to be well-done before before releasing parts. So that's a very relative "only".

But from an operational point of view, HiTechnic has effectively become a part of LEGO: they get components from LEGO and internal resources, assemble them, and return them to LEGO for sale at Lego@Home (you can also buy them worldwide from HiTechnic's website).

HiTechnic anticipates that it will be releasing new sensors (or other NXT electronics parts) every couple of months, and every new sensor will be jointly launched by LEGO and HiTechnic.

Color Coding

The compass in the pictures is a production model, exactly they way you'll be able to buy it soon. For this compass sensors, HiTechnic needed to produce custom end caps. Since the compass sensor does not have external parts, a closed cap does the trick.

HiTechnic plans more sensors without external parts. If they all looked the same, you would have a hard time finding the right sensor in your sensor collection. To avoid this problem, HiTechnic has said they will color-code the sensors: different sensors will have different end cap colors, when the end caps are the same for various sensors.

Everyone wins

The new HiTecnic Lego brick adds value to my NXT set, and I believe sensors like these will bring more people to buy the LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT set. Users will have a wider range of sensors to build robots with. So everyone wins.


At August 31, 2006 2:20 PM , Anonymous Louis said...

I assume this sensor is using I2C to communicate with the brick. Does it have a unique address or does it use the same one as the Sonar sensor?

At August 31, 2006 2:42 PM , Anonymous Filip said...

Hi Louis,

I'm not entirely sure about the I2C address, but when I use it from within the NXT-G environment, I can use it as an ultrasonic sensor.

I'm currently writing an article on my first NXT-G programming experience with the sensor, so more on that later today.

I intend to do some advanced programming with this sensor later on, and no doubt will bring more info on this then.

Filip (having fun)

At August 31, 2006 2:49 PM , Blogger Brian Davis said...

You can currently access the sensor by using a NXT-G US sensor block, but I don't think this reveals all of the functionality of it. HiTechnic plans a releasing a compass-specific NXT-G block later.

Filip, nice intro to the sensor.

Brian Davis


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