Having entertained children and adults alike for 50 years, Lego has recently made a successful leap into the future of technology and engineering. You'll find video games, programmable robotics kits and even Computer Aided Design (CAD) tools to support limitless virtual construction.
January 2008 was the official 50th anniversary of the Lego brick. The simple interlocking bricks progressed from humble beginnings in Denmark into a worldwide brand. Many an engineer will fondly remember their first construction set and may still have Lego models around now (I know I have). Especially popular with budding engineers (and my favorite) were the Lego Technic series that came with working gears, differentials, suspension, engines and even pneumatics.
Lego Video Games
With the evolution of video games it was inevitable that Lego would cross the physical-virtual divide and so it was with numerous sandbox Lego construction games aimed at children. As you might expect, the games typically involve building virtual Lego models and interacting with them in a Lego world.
More recent Lego video games have used Lego themed characters and environments matched to well known movie franchises. The Lego Star Wars games have pitted Lego versions of Star Wars characters (such as Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia) and props (such as the Millennium Falcon) against the evil Empire led by Darth Vader, to be greeted with both critical and commercial acclaim. I'd like to think that at some point you'd be able to import your own virtual Lego models and characters into such a game (real-time physics) environment and then see what Darth Vader makes of a giant Lego Godzilla.
The Lego Mindstorms Robotics Invention System brought together the virtual and physical worlds, providing a virtual programming environment for real-time robotics control of physical Lego models.
The central component of Lego Mindstorms is a programmable microcomputer (controller) which can process inputs from various sensors (such as touch and light sensors) and supply power to drive electric motors. Programs for the controller are developed and uploaded using a PC. Mindstorms has been widely adopted for teaching programming and robotics. There are annual competitions worldwide that attract huge numbers of participants to design and control ever more sophisticated robots using Mind Storms.
For the next generation of engineers and hobbyists there are free Lego CAD tools (such as the LDraw software toolset) for designing Lego models using a limitless supply of Lego pieces and colors. Once complete, a virtual Lego model can be converted into a step-by-step construction manual and even realistically rendered using POV-Ray. If you want to build a physical model of your virtual design you can even order custom Lego kits to match your virtual Lego collection.
It seems that the Lego ecosystem, with its virtual and physical presence can mimic the more general mechanical engineering ecosystems, with virtual prototyping and testing preceding the actual physical construction. It's clear that Lego, virtual and real, is a great system to develop engineering skills (such as problem solving, design and construction) and it's fun too.