Animals have taken over my house. Every time I turn around something is hopping, walking or skittering across the floor. I blame No Starch Press and the LEGO company; a NXT MindStorms kit and a copy of “The LEGO NXT Mindstorms Zoo” (“Zoo”) by Fay Rhodes has my 15 year old daughter (with previously no real interest in robots or programming) building all sorts of infernal machines.
The release of the MindStorms NXT has brought forward a plethora of new possibilities and books to inform us of them. No Starch has published several. “Zoo”, subtitled “A Kid-Friendly Guide to Building Animals with the NXT Robotics System” seems well pitched at the beginner; all the models are easily built and programming the models for the basic behaviours in the book is easy and well explained.
At first impression a retail NXT buyer may suffer some disappointment, the book is designed for those who have the Educational version of the NXT with a the extra Educational Resource Kit so you will be missing some pieces required for the models. Most NXT owners, though, will have some LEGO already and may have the pieces. Rhodes does go to the trouble of telling you which pieces and where to get them. Just keep this in mind if you are intending to give the book as a gift, you may wish to track down and purchase the extra pieces and include them to avoid disappointment.
The building instructions are a good size, more easily read and understood than those from LEGO themselves which I find a little too small. I also appreciated the parts guide at the start of each model; when you might have to go hunting through other sets for a piece or an alternate the guide meant you could get this over and done with at the beginning rather than just as you are about to complete the model.
The first few models are easily built and programmed, getting progressively harder as you go through the book. None are beyond the capabilities of an even moderately experienced LEGO builder. Rhodes also includes a few sidebars showing alternative parts that can be used for some of the harder to source pieces, a nice touch and one that encouraged my daughter to work around a couple of unavailable parts when building Strutter.
All the model programming uses LEGO’s visual programming environment rather than any of the third party languages and tools. A good choice given the book’s likely readers. The model programming is a little harder to do from the instructions, though this is more due to the black and white printing and a click together programming environment than any fault by author or publisher. While I had a little difficulty my daughter’s eyes were able to cope and so I don’t see this as a significant flaw in the book. Rhodes encourages the reader/builder to use the programming environment’s ability to chunk code as a block and to develop using a bottom up approach.
For the target market the book is almost perfect, with a good tenor and an excellent choice of models to build. It would be an ideal book to buy for someone who has just gone through building the models included by LEGO in the kit. While the book is aimed at the younger end of LEGO’s suggested age range for Mindstorms don’t let that put you off purchasing a copy – it’s the perfect second book for almost any NXT builder and the “Kid-” could be easily dropped from the subtitle.