Draw up a list of the top five interstellar movie twerps ever. Anakin Skywalker is on it, right? Well, there's no denying that he has a knack for building droids C-3PO, for example. And while you might not want to emulate Anakin, you can start honing those Jedi robot-building powers with LEGO Mindstorms' Droid Developers Kit ($100).
After an hour of snapping little white bricks together, my own scale-model R2-D2 was chirping out droid-speak and rolling in mindless circles on the floor. Unlike the LEGO systems of old, this setup includes an oversize brick with a light-sensitive microcomputer inside. The CPU lets the droid move forward or backward, follow a flashlight, or sound an alarm when it senses a change in light. No holograms of Princess Leia ... yet.
My Jedi apprenticeship in robot construction was aided by a CD-ROM tutorial set in Watto's junk shop and narrated by what passed for C-3PO. (Building without a computer, using the Constructopedia booklet, is possible, but less fun.) There are instructions for building five contraptions, including a Battle Droid and Gungan Sub, but they can be accessed only after finishing the training modules. My coworkers were quite impressed that I'd built an R2 look-alike, though I didn't tell them about the step-by-step directions for ages 9 and up. Which got me wondering whether the Droid Developer is a toy for kids or adults. I definitely felt childish crawling under the desk looking for a missing gear shaft from the 657-piece kit. But after completing the first two levels, I couldn't wait to start on the follow-up, Robotics Discovery Set ($150, also for ages 9 and up), which has a more complex smart brick and touch sensors. That way you can build an obstacle-avoiding insect-like creature, or a guard bug that takes photos of would-be intruders.
Then there's the Robotics Invention System ($200, for ages 12 and up), which has a programmable brick that communicates with your PC via an infrared transmitter (sorry, no Macs allowed ... yet). With it you can engineer swing-arm cranes and grabber claws. Add an optional Robo Cam ($129) or remote control ($20) and you'll begin to see why the Droid Developer is just the newest link in LEGO's all-time best-selling product line easy enough for children, engaging enough for adults.
For proof, check out some of the hobbyists who've erected websites honoring their Rube Gold-brick creations: Simen Skogsrud, 27, built a working image scanner (www.mop.no/~simen/lego.htm), and Ben Williamson, 24, made an almost usable VCR complete with remote control (staticip.cx/~benw/lego/). Discussion central for LEGO-nauts is Lugnet (www.lugnet.com), where you can swap construction tips with scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory or Jonathan B. Knudsen, author of the upcoming book LEGO Mindstorms Robots (O'Reilly & Associates; $24.95). The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the programmable brick was pioneered, has been teaching students to play with LEGOs since 1985. And if they use LEGOs, then making Star Wars replicas could be considered educational. Which means emulating Anakin might not be so bad after all.