Friday, September 17, 2010

Rediscovering Lego

I was a Lego snob.  Or maybe Luddite is a better word.   I grew up with Lego; real Lego.  Perpendicular, rectangular, chunky, Lego. A slanted piece; a gold mine.  A color other than white; manna from heaven. Lego that didn't come in a box with instructions.  It was free-form, like pre-cast play-dough.  It required imagination to build something and imagination to see that something in the thing that you built.  It invited creativity and required flexibility, ingenuity, patience and resourcefulness.  And because the bricks were never meant to be anything in particular, there was no problem unsnapping them and throwing them back in the box to be reborn as some new form.

I suppose I was 13 or 14 when I stopped playing with Lego.  In the intervening 38 years I've regularly pontificated about the ruinous direction Lego has taken.  Toward prepackaged kits that are meant to be built into one object, like a model, but without glue.  I decried the loss of development of independent, creative mind, to that of a slavish, direction-following sheep.

Then, this year, during a sleepless night, I wandered into my girlfriend's son's play area and started perusing his collection of Lego.  They had been dumped out onto a rimmed baking sheet.  I ran my hand over the unfamiliar shapes, spreading them like pumpkin seeds to be dried.  The pieces were so tiny, like shards of broken safety glass, some even smaller.    How could anything of any size be built from such small fragments?  But there were gems in there too.  There weren't just slanted parts, but curves, and I don't mean just round parts but swooping, curvaceous, voluptuous forms.  Even ones that swept upwards and thus could be applied on the bottom side.  Unheard of in my day.  As I waved my hand over the pool, stirring it up with my fingertips even more was revealed.  Tiny hinges and parts that could be used with hinges and tiles made of one dot or knob; one-third the standard height and  and  in a myriad of translucent colors.  

I started with a cockpit at first, and then more.  I experimented with different solutions, found new features to add, and rebuilt the thing thrice over.  I was obsessed with working on it.  Stealing away at night, taking "breaks" during the day that would turn into hour-long Lego-thons.  Time whooshed by when I worked on Lego.  I missed meals, went reluctantly and urgently to the bathroom; didn't answer my phone.

The result, the FB-X1, is marvel to behold.  Well, not really, but for me it was a revelation and I took enormous pride in having constructed such a fun and feature-leaden product out of available materials.  I had used 2/3rds or more of the tiles; and all the good ones. 

 See more images of  the FB-X1 here.
The FB-X1 made me reexamine my assumptions about modern Lego.  Maybe instead of all those pre-designed, built-once toys I imagined on kids' shelves there was a big box full of parts just as in my day. But this box was full of parts relevant to this century.

Out of curiosity I visited Lego's website,  There, among many, many other things was Lego Digital Designer, a free download that enables you to build, in 3D, Lego objects using a large array and unlimited quantity of bricks.  You can then upload your design to Lego's DesingbyMe site,  create box art online and have the whole thing shipped with an instruction manual, just like a real product,  The service isn't cheap, nonetheless I toyed with the idea of recreating the FB-X1 in LDD just to see how much it would cost.  But this idea was quickly usurped as I became intoxicated with the  possibility of creating something new; the FB-X2.

See more images and animations of the FB-X2.
Once again I threw myself into the task, disregarding other projects and responsibilities. The freedom of LDD combined with its deficiencies much midnight oil to be burned, but in the end the FB-X2 is testament to two things:
  • Lego is still a whole lot of fun, and
  • It's said that the difference between men and boys is the size of their toys.  Lego proves that the difference between men and boys is just the size of the boys.  


Lego has crossed the chasm into the digital world.  Is Lego better than when I was young?  One thing that is very different is people: Lego people,  The Lego of my youth was very object and machine oriented.  People, if any, were purely imaginary and were just along for the ride,  Lego today is very much about the story and characters,  Many, if not all of these are drawn from Hollywood story lines like Star Wars and Prince of Persia,  The Lego provides the set pieces. It's not the main attraction. Is Lego now for budding liberal arts majors more than engineers or have the engineer moved on to other Lego products like Mindstorm and Technics? I don't know.  But I'm sure Lego is still playing a big role in kids' lives and I take comfort in the idea that in many a playroom there sits a box full of recycled parts, A 3-D jigsaw puzzle whose picture changes as you assemble it; limited only by your imagination.


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