The Escape of the Lego Virus

So it seems that various people have decided that Lego Inc. isn’t fulfilling their Legolian needs, so they’ve started making their own designs.

There’s a litte video from Wired that goes on about the reasons for this… and about the rapid democratisation of manufacturing generally.

There is still quite a long way to go before this becomes a desktop process… or even a “local-key-cutting-shop” process… but talented individuals and small companies are no longer blocked from the game.

So Lego, that started out as a kid’s toy, has now evolved into something else… a platform within which evolution can take place, regardless of whether the originating company likes it. There was a wave of this several years ago – as described by Eric Von Hippel (4th video down).

He describes how when Lego released Mindkits, it was instantly taken up and massively extended by hackers and enthusiasts.. and Lego didn’t really know what to do, so they did nothing… and lo, a whole new area of quite fantastic innovation was born. Search for “lego machine” any time on youtube, and you’ll see a random sample of an incredible array of daftly innovative gadgets… that people are doing for fun. The level of innovation here is absolutely off the scale of anything that a private company could achieve.

(My favourite from today is a domino stacking machine)

Brilliant. And it’s been viewed about 700,000 times… gives TV advertising a fairly serious run for its money. And its free.

So anyway… according to the first video, Lego aren’t in the habit of making weapons, and have to care about things like copyright anality. Small players don’t. Small players can scamper between the dinosaurs legs, chittering to each other in their winter coats.

I think what’s interesting here though is that users/uber-fans have moved from “making things out of lego” to “making the actual lego itself”… doing a twostep around 20th century notions of “idea ownership”… which lego may or may not take exception to at some point, but they seem to be tolerating it for now… and really they ought to, because it all feeds back into the dominance of it as a platform for rapid-prototyping and generally messing about, being a kid.

But the uses can be more serious as well – there is for example, movement afoot to make an open-source printer (and ain’t that an industry that seriously deserves to get the shit kicked out of it) – and I noticed that in the conversation people were talking about rubber lego wheels possibly being ideal for making the paper roll forward.

One of my pet theories is that the killer-app of the hardware revolution will be software – and it will be something that’s a bit like lego – that allows people to design, then make things that they know will fit together because the connecting parts are standardised shapes. I’m starting to entertain nagging notions that this might not just be lego-like, it might actually BE lego.

Personally I would have thought mecano would be a better bet – more flexible and easier to make (the tolerances that go into lego… “stipples” is pretty insane)… but lego’s got this whole cute-fest thing going on, and it doesn’t present such a blank-slate as mecano. People are already doing it… there just isn’t the learning-curve-destroying-DIY software available yet.

So there you go. Don’t say you weren’t warned.


2 Comments » for The Escape of the Lego Virus
  1. I’m in a Mechanisms class at ITP and we just had an assignment this week where we had to put together one of the complicated Lego moving parts kits (the ones that are sub Mindkits, but still have lots of gears, chains, etc):

    For that same class, I’m also using Lego to prototype something I plan to build with real McMaster-Carr gears and laser cut wood, a thaumatrope player:

    Lego has solved so many of the annoying parts of building things that move: getting the precisely right distances between gears so that they mesh correctly, a good library of shafts/couplers/connects/gears/wheels/pulleys that all work together, etc.

    Somebody should build a web app that takes your Lego parts design (like from their store that you use to order custom kits) and turns it into CAD drawings for laser cutting with McMaster parts numbers, etc.

  2. Also how long do you think it will be between when they get the first version of the Open Source Printer working and when it does 3d?