To celebrate the launch of Lego's newest robotics set, the toymaker tapped four of Silicon Valley's tech companies, pitting them against each other in a robot-building competition. The stakes were high: a trophy made of toy bricks, prizes for charity—and, of course, eternal bragging rights.
"We're a kid's company so everyone has to win something," declared Michael McNally, brand relations direction at Lego Systems, as he announced the results of the contest Thursday afternoon. Teams from Flickr, Facebook, Autodesk, and were all awarded different distinctions for their robotic creations—and five Lego Mindstorms sets were donated to a charity of their choice.
The teams began building their creations 10 days before the big unveil inside a shack surrounded by food trucks in San Francisco's SOMA district. Each team had received a third-generation Lego Mindstorms kit, which hits shelves Sept. 1, to build something quintessentially San Franciscan. Will Gorman, one of the judges for the competition, told Fast Company the teams were judged on creativity, software, and building technique. "There's also a bonus for mobile integration," he added.
Gorman, a software engineer, was tapped by the Danish toy company to provide feedback throughout Mindstorms' product development cycle. He calls the latest version a "substantial upgrade—more than a dot release" with improvements to the motor, a new infrared scanner, and open-source software.
Winning the prize for best San Francisco story, Flickr's robot was inspired by Emperor Norton, a noted local figure who christened himself emperor of the United States and protector of Mexico. Though his investments in rice eventually bankrupted him, Norton's funeral was one of the most lavish the city has ever seen. "His Wikipedia page is totally fascinating to read end to end," Ross Harmes said, who also noted that the Flickr office on Commercial Street is a block away from where Norton had lived. Like the self-declared emperor (who issued his own widely accepted currency), the flamboyantly dressed Lego robot version of Norton doles out its own non-legal tender.
Instructables, which was acquired by Autodesk in 2011, showed off a robot that's emblematic of techies in San Francisco. Because the little bot's far too occupied with its iPhone, it's constantly bumping into people and other obstacles. The judges thought this was "awesome commentary for tech culture in the Bay Area." McNally added that "while we don't endorse this, we're giving you the prize for best texting while driving." Autodesk, a 3-D design software company, is also powering the Mindstorms 3D Builder tablet app, which acts as a guide for assembling different models with interactive, zoomable, rotatable, step-by-step illustrations.
Facebook and Pandora both had similar ideas, focusing on the Bay Area's baseball fanaticism. Facebook, awarded for the most kid-centric demonstration, had its droid hit a ball off a tee and run around four bases, using a color sensor to follow a baseball diamond created with colored electrical tape on cardboard.
Though the judges said everyone was a winner, Pandora took the top prize, given the distinction of getting kids most excited about Mindstorms. "There's a lot of baseball fans in the Bay Area, whether you're a Giants fan or an Athletics fan," said Pandora's Lawrence Kennedy. Pandora's two robots—one dressed in a Giants uniform and the other in A's garb—played a game of ball, in which San Francisco's Sergio Robo pitched to Oakland's Coco Robo (who also goes by Robo Crisp). Coco hit it out of the park, and the marble-sized red ball rolled under a picnic table.
Now that the competition is over, these teams will go back to their day jobs. They're still building—just not with toy bricks.
[Images: Alice Truong]