Never tell Lego that it can’t build something out of brick. The humble Lego has produced complicated architectural models of the Death Star or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, but it’s also built one of the most recognizable franchises in video games and a rapidly expanding Hollywood footprint. Lego’s empire is worth nearly $6 billion in annual revenue.
Now, the company is piecing together an even more ambitious idea with Lego Boost, a new, family-friendly programmable Lego kit. The $160 pack borrows the delightful metaphor at the core of its company: It’s a toy that you can code just as easily as you stack bricks.
“Of course bricks are integral to the core DNA of the company. That’s something we’d always integrate,” says Lego Boost design director Simon Kent. “But the way you can consider the brick, and use it in different ways, is also part of the way we [build] experiences.”
Lego already has a few coding products, like Mindstorms and Technic. Boost, however, feels more like a true, code-able toy. The quest for fun starts with the borderline garish packaging, continues as you build one of Lego’s lovable models (like a purring cat or whirring car), and concludes with you programming your creation using Boost’s new user interface for code. You simply drag and drop actions that your model can carry out, which range from driving forward to letting out a fart, as though you’re stacking a line of Lego bricks. And suddenly, your Lego sculpture is smart.
The 850-piece set expects that you have your own Android or Apple tablet. And in lieu of bundled paper instructions, you work your way through each level of this app much like a game, unlocking new models and new coding tricks with each new stage. The largest builds–like a Wall-E-esque robot complete with tracks for feet–can take several hours to complete. Others take just a few minutes.
While building the Boost app, Lego’s designers considered not just how to translate paper instructions to digital app form, but how to improve the build process itself through its interface–to make it clearer, more forgiving, and more enjoyable. “If you give kids paper instructions they’ll build from step one to the end. With this, we can script that experience, and get them to take breaks,” says Kent. You don’t build the entire robot at once, for instance. You build it in three stages, and at each chapter’s finish, you get to play with what you’ve completed.
When reading the instructions, a simple forward-backward toggle allows you to see where to drop in new bricks. “Generally in the company, over the years, there’s been different themes and model involvement, but building instructions have pretty much stayed the same. The format is a tried and tested format for a lot of kids for decades. [But] there’s an inherent need to innovate within the build instructions just as we do the models,” says Kent. “That’s something you may see us do more–how do we engage kids more in the building instructions, how do we ensure they don’t make mistakes?”
How did these instructions fare? I built the first model–what was promised to be a five-minute propeller car, reminiscent of something out of a Richard Scarry book–with my three-year-old son to find out. The toy is rated for kids 7+, but with a bare minimum of assistance, he was able to follow the step-by-step diagrams, and ascertain the next step to build the model. (Crucially, Dad was able to figure it all out, too!) As for the five-minute build? It really only took five minutes.
Then we unlocked the next step: coding it. “Blocks snap together a little bit like Lego bricks,” Kent says of the interface, which uses only icons and numbers, for kids who aren’t yet reading. “The idea is that this is supposed to be a digital version of your carpet, where you step on the bricks and it hurts. But this doesn’t hurt! You can leave them laying around.”
You start with a button–you can activate it by hitting “play,” or by triggering a sensor–then stack on all the things you want to happen next in a chain. You know what’s supposed to be happening, when, because when you activate the code, the chain lights up. You can run several of these strands in parallel, to create some pretty complicated reactions. For instance, you can hit “play” to make your robot spin a 360 four times, and then launch itself at full speed ahead. But if you wanted to have a soundtrack to this sequence, you could program another line to wait patiently as your bot spins–then emit a loud “zooooommm” as it peels out.
As for the coding end, my son immediately understood the drag-n-drop logic, but I helped him create a satisfying choreography in which the car’s propeller spun up and the car drove forward before taking a sudden turn. Notably, Lego designers actually recorded their own voices for the sounds behind Boost, so you hear a Danish dude going “bru brum brummmm” as the propeller builds momentum. Boost encourages you to make your own noise, too: The app will readily record your own sonic creations!
It’s silly. It’s fun. And crucially, it helps bridge that uncanny valley between playing with this digital app and these physical bricks.
However, I was skeptical whether something coded on a tablet–and often activated by hitting a button on the tablet–would still be fun to play with as, you know, a toy. “We wanted to make sure [kids] don’t build a model and then go to the screen all the time,” Kent admits. “Some models are more directed to tablet play, some are more focused on physical play. We think there’s a nice balance in getting the kids to go back and forth to the tablet.”
My own fear was put to rest after the car was built and coded to completion. I asked my son if we should build the robot next–which sadly, requires the cannibalization of the finished car model. He looked at me like I was insane. No! Instead, he played with the car for an hour with a smile on his face, hitting the button to make it go on the tablet, and watching it go. And at his suggestion, we began reenacting one of his favorite Richard Scarry stories, page by page, with the vehicle. At this moment, it wasn’t about code, programming, or clever UIs. It was just the perfect toy for the moment. And he built it. Mostly by himself.