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LEGO Has Gone Interactive

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Jason R. Rich takes a look at how LEGO toys have gone from traditional and extremely popular plastic building bricks originally created in 1932 to interactive play experiences, thanks to a handful of iPhone and iPad apps, online games, and other high-tech products.
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When most adults think of LEGO, what comes to mind are multicolored plastic bricks that can be used to tap people's imagination as they create, build, interact, and play.

For more than 80 years, LEGO bricks have been a staple toy found within millions of toy chests. During the past decade, however, LEGO's product line has expanded dramatically, but those plastic building bricks have remained the centerpiece of the company's offerings.

It All Started with Colorful Plastic Bricks...

As technology has progressed, so has the LEGO play experience. LEGO Legends of CHIMA: Speedorz, LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga, LEGO Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles, LEGO The Lord of the Rings, and a handful of other iPhone and iPad game apps are currently available for purchase from the App Store.

For those who don't want to store hundreds or thousands of plastic LEGO pieces in their home, there's the LEGO Digital Designer app for PCs and Macs. This is a virtual LEGO set, in the form of free downloadable software (http://ldd.lego.com/en-us/) that allows for hundreds of different LEGO models to be virtually built on the computer screen and then shared electronically with others.

More recently, LEGO teamed up with Google to offer LEGO Build (www.buildwithchrome.com/getchrome), a free, online-based, virtual LEGO building experience that utilizes the Chrome web browser.

Later in 2014, LEGO plans to release interactive, online-based games based on its popular characters, Mini Figures, and play sets. The first online gaming experience offered will be LEGO Mini Figures: The Online Game. It will be a free, massively multiplayer online experience playable from PCs, Macs, and mobile devices.

Meanwhile, for people who collect the popular plastic LEGO Mini-Figures (each sold separately), several different apps are offered to help manage a personal collection, plus mix-and-match virtual Mini Figure pieces and parts to create new virtual figures on the iPhone or iPad's screen.

LEGO Toys and Technology Merge Nicely

Several LEGO-themed apps merge the traditional building and creating experience of the plastic bricks with an interactive mobile device experience. For example, the traditional board game LEGO: Life of George ($29.99) is a game that requires players to build tiny LEGO models using plastic bricks while being timed and simultaneously experiencing game play elements on the iPhone or iPad.

In the Life of George (shown in Figure 1), after one of the more than 250 LEGO models is built, the iPhone or iPad's built-in camera is used to photograph and scan the model for accuracy. The app than assigns a score to the player and keeps track of everyone's progress.

Figure 1 The Life of George game combines traditional LEGO bricks with an interactive game app for the iPhone or iPad

Another truly cutting-edge and interesting merging of traditional LEGO toys with interactive technology can be seen in the free LEGO Movie Maker app. Using this app in conjunction with an iPhone or iPad's built-in camera, anyone can create stop-action animated movies using plastic LEGO Mini-Figures and play sets.

The LEGO Movie Maker app (shown in Figure 2) allows users to create animated sequences that have a similar look and feel to The LEGO Movie. The LEGO Movie Maker app includes the tools needed to capture animated sequences using a series of stop-motion images—and then add titles, virtual effects, music, and sound effects to the original production. Once the raw digital footage is filmed, the app offers editing tools and the ability to upload the movie directly to YouTube.

Figure 2 With the LEGO Movie Maker app, you can shoot movies with your iPhone, featuring your favorite LEGO toys and mini figures

One aspect of the LEGO Movie Maker app is an online Movie Gallery that allows users to share their productions with the public. Although the iMovie app is designed for editing live-action home movies shot with the camera(s) built into an iPhone or iPad, much of the same functionality is offered by LEGO Movie Maker, but it is used to create LEGO-based animated movies with LEGO toys.

The user interface is easy enough for an 8- to 10-year-old to figure out, but the movie making and editing tools and what's possible using the app are cutting-edge, highly impressive, and limited only by the user's imagination.

Even an adult LEGO enthusiast or movie-making buff will appreciate what's possible using nothing but the LEGO Movie Maker app with traditional LEGO toys.

With the LEGO Movie Maker app, traditional LEGO blocks and toy sets are used to build miniature movie sets. The LEGO Mini Figures are used as actors. The app works with any LEGO play sets, so the app's users are free to create their own adventures, film them, and then share their productions with friends and family on their mobile device's screen, on YouTube, or by using AirPlay and Apple TV on any HD television set.

Build and Program Robots with LEGO Mindstorms EV3

LEGO and technology are not strangers. Several years ago, LEGO introduced Mindstorms (http://www.lego.com/en-us/Mindstorms), a robotics kit that allows users to build and program functional robots from specially designed LEGO building blocks. Figure 3 shows a robot created with LEGO Mindstorms that can be programmed and controlled with an iPhone/iPad app.

Figure 3 With LEGO Mindstorms, you can build robots with LEGO bricks and then program and control them by using your iOS mobile device

Late last year, LEGO released LEGO Mindstorms EV3 ($349.99), a kit that allows for 17 different and highly customizable robots to be built and programmed.

One of the new features offered with this latest generation Mindstorms product is the ability to program the robots using an iPad app that wirelessly links to the robots via Bluetooth (as opposed to a USB cable connection with a PC or Mac).

The LEGO Mindstorms 3D Building app offers interactive, step-by-step building instructions for creating the various robots. It also offers the tools needed to program those robots to handle a wide range of tasks.

This is another example of how a real-world toy product is using cutting-edge technology within the toy, while also offering seamless compatibility with iOS mobile devices to enhance the users' building and creative experience.

Final Thoughts...

LEGO may be more than 80 years old, but its global popularity has never been bigger. No other toy product line in history has so expertly merged physical toy products with online, computer-based, and iOS mobile device technology; theme parks; and retail shopping experiences; as well as traditional media (blockbuster movies, TV shows, books, magazines, and DVDs) to create cutting-edge entertainment for people in many different age groups.

Whether you build with plastic LEGO bricks, experience an interactive and action-packed video game, build a robot, shoot your own movie, or compete against your friends to see who is the fastest and most cunning LEGO builder, several core underlying themes remain a constant.

LEGO products in any form focus on unleashing creativity and offer unlimited replayability and timeless entertainment that captures the imaginations of toddlers, kids, teens, and adults alike.

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