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One of the things that fascinated me with my first computer were cellular automata. And what seemed obvious was such cells could probably be made real and three-dimensional. And so it's proved to be, as a mere thirty years later here they are in the form of the Cubelets KT01 Construction Kit from Modular Robotics. And while there's only 20 cubes in the current set (which they call blocks), there's no apparent limitation to the numbers that could be added. (Consider that a warning...)

Robots As Far As The Eye Can See
Robots - As Far As The Eye Can See...


I bought these online and they're very new, (as is the company producing them), the construction sets still being classed as betas. So take that into account with the minor criticisms below. My set is from the first lot of 100 sold.

The Cubelets' packaging consisted of its box in a larger box with newspaper as padding. And not really enough newspaper to stop the Cubelets box from bumping around. Which, at 4.5 lbs (according to UPS) it probably did. The Cubelets' box showed no dents to its corners or elsewhere though, so seems to have had a reasonable trip. That padding does need to be improved though. Modular Robotics use of recycled materials (in more than just the padding) is commendable, but I'm sure more effective recycled padding could be found than crumpled newspaper pages.

There wasn't any packing slip included, the only documentation being the UPS sticker on the box. I'd of course received an invoice via email when I paid for the set, but for items of this price (US$300) you kind of expect the real thing included with the good.

What's In The Cubelets KT01 Box


So, what you get, apart from the 20 blocks, is a very nice cardboard box to keep them in, (which was a contest winner, though is slightly different - no square holes!), a battery charger with two leads, (one for a wall socket and the other for a cigarette lighter socket), and seemingly no batteries. (They were found in the Cubelets' power block and already charged.) The wall socket plug was American style, not NZ style, so I needed to get an adapter for that. (Happily the charger handles our 240 volts current. )And I would've got two spare rechargeable batteries - but the guy in the shop said he'd not seen the type before.

American Plug - NZ Socket Plug Converter
The Battery Charger Plug


And there's no documentation included at all, and till very recently, not much online either. Since receiving the set though, a good start at online documentation has been made. My guess would be they wanted feedback from the beta-testers before writing a user's guide, which is fair enough. And it was kinda fun to figure out which cube did what.

Anyway, with already charged batteries, it was time to see what Cubelets could do. First up was testing all the blocks. All have a little green light that turns on when they're given power, so that's one test you can give them. The other being to use them as intended. "Use" consisting of sticking the blocks together, they holding together with magnets. All the sense blocks seemed to be working except for what I thought was the sound detector. But on checking online I discovered it was for temperature, and was found to be working too after trying it in front of a fan heater. Seems there isn't a sound detector, despite the online description saying "You can build robots that drive around on a tabletop, respond to light, sound, and temperature, and have surprisingly lifelike behavior." I would've preferred sound detection over temperature, but maybe it's an Easter Egg to be stumbled on. (Though it doesn't appear to be, he said later.) Instead of sound detection, you get two infra-red distance-detectors.

Strong Magnets!
Strong Magnets!


The Cubelets seem very robust. Which is probably for the best, as large constructions you're holding in your hands have a tendency to disassemble themselves quite suddenly and head for the floor. Also good is the speed their little wheels can deliver. And not just on a smooth surface - these will run quite happily on carpet, which surprised me. (Though it's perhaps not recommended.) And to continue with the good news, the battery life seems good too. I'd played with them for three or so hours before starting to wonder if some of the effects I was getting were due the batteries running down.

Cubelets Battery Block
The Cubelets Battery Block


The only technical problems I've had so far have been with the blocks with motors in. (The Rotate block and the two Drive blocks.) The Rotate block sometimes won't rotate, as if stuck, suggesting its fit might be a little too tight. I partially pulled this apart, just two screws holding a block together. I didn't risk trying to separate the motor from the block's casing though, as it's a very tight fit and breaking something seemed likely. It seemed to work a bit better after putting it back together again, though it still seems to get stuck more easily than it should.

Cubelets Rotate Block Exposed
Inside The Cubelets Rotate Block


And the problem with the drives was one started to go slower than the other, and sometimes not at all. So I pulled it partially apart as well, but as with the drive block, getting at the motor looked risky. This time wires were in the way. However, the large gear is easy to get at and it was loose on its shaft. The gear's just pressed on and a firm press tightened it. And this fixed the problem, it being a match for the other drive after putting it back together again.

Cubelets Drive Block Exposed
Inside A Cubelets Drive Block


So, what can you build with them? Constructions that drive around, obviously. And ones that don't go anywhere but have moving parts. And they can make sounds or flash a light as well as respond in various ways to what any sense blocks detect. Simple movements are easy to figure out, but as you attempt more complex things, it gets harder.


No Assembly Required!


What the action blocks do, (the transparent ones - Drives, Flashlight and so on), depends on a number they receive from the blocks attached to them. This could be from up to five blocks, and it averages those inputs. And the numbers are generated by the (black) sense blocks and sent to any blocks attached to them. And those blocks receiving them may be action blocks, or they may be (the brightly-coloured) 'Think' blocks, which give Cubelets more intelligence than just simple direct-responses to their senses. A think block may invert a number for instance, so a low number becomes a high one. Or it may send on the lowest of those it receives.


All Terrain Vehicle!


(And the different types of blocks are where the comparison with cellular automata breaks down - possibly. You need both action and sense blocks to get activity from Cubelets. Even so, I can't get my head around how an array of Flashlight blocks (say) with a few senses on its edges would behave. Would be fun to find out...)


Cubelets Like To Be Warm


And finally, the distance from where a number was generated is also taken into account, nearer sources having a higher priority than more distant ones.


Where Cubelets Work


All of which introduces complexity and a fair bit of head-scratching to a large construction. And with only one or two of each type of block in the set, not having enough blocks will probably be the main source of frustration for early adopters. I've had fun trying to set up interesting cycles of sound, but tend to add blocks of little use as they're all that's left. Could you get a recognizable tune out of Cubelets? I suspect so - with more blocks. Though adding a human conductor would be an alternative to the totally robotic approach, which I'm sure could be achieved with just the blocks in this set.


Spinny Cubelets!


And the want for more blocks leads on a want for more types of blocks. Sound detection, as mentioned, seems an obvious one. And the possibilities for more types of action blocks is no doubt endless. Already in the works is a Bluetooth Cubelet to allow you to reprogram the current blocks. This would be useful for creating Think blocks with different behaviour, for instance. And, maybe, to allow the Drive and Rotate blocks to go both ways. (If technically possible. [Later: It looks like it is...]) As they are now, you cannot put them into reverse.


Song Of The Cubelets


Currently, Modular Robotics are hard at work trying to ramp up production of these first sets. Down the track though, the ability to buy just the blocks you want will be a need they should try and fill. Which, apart from satisfying their customers, will give them good data on which blocks are most popular.


Three More Cubelets Clips...


To sum up, Cubelets are quite wonderful. A true toy of the digital age. And toy of the year? Quite possibly!

(And a note about the videos. I chose to use Flickr, then found out there's no way to select the image that's displayed. Very annoying!)

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