Lego robots play chess - incredible!

The latest project for Lego robots is a clear indication that your toys are ready to defeat you in a battle of wits. Dubbed 'Monster Chess' the 156 square foot board and game set contains more than 100,000 Lego pieces. Every chess figure, from pawns to kings, is a 3D robot created using Lego Mindstorms. The project was sponsored by Lego but accomplished by a team of enthusiasts led by Steve Hassenplug who took about one year to finish! Monster Chess will be on display at BrickWorld, a Lego conference, currently underway in Chicago. You can get a sneak peek at the setup in the videos from Hassenplug below. Is there anything Lego robots can't do?

We've seen Lego Mindstorms robots twisted to fit almost any task. Amateur engineers are building bots that can solve any Rubik's cube with lightning speed. In academia, students have taught Lego robots how to mimic human locomotion. Now, sponsored builds like Monster Chess are pushing the limits of what can be accomplished.

Watch the first video below to see the 3D robots play a quick match. I love how the knights kick their legs as they move. Checkmate is at 4:22, and you can probably skip everything after that. The second video gives an even better understanding of the system, showing a quick game using just the wheeled bases for each bot. Get an appreciation for the scale of the board at 2:31 when a child makes an appearance. The control system (a touchscreen) is revealed around 3:07.

As you'll notice in the videos, the various robot chess figures will routinely move out of the way of other pieces as they traverse the board. These complex movements are coordinated by the touchscreen/laptop which communicates with the bots via Bluetooth. The system is capable of allowing either humans or computers to play against other human or computer opponents. It can even replay famous matches!

Up close with the Lego robot rook. Really wish they had footage of this thing putting the king in check with a cannon.

Each robot knows where it is thanks to color sensors which detect the boundaries between squares and a colored marker in the center of each. Besides the knight moving its legs, there are two other animations. The rulers (kings and queens) will gesture with their scepters, and the rooks will fire a cannon at the king to signal check. Wish we had video of that, sounds awesome.

There are 38 NXT bricks (the Lego Mindstorm 'brains') used in the setup, one for each piece, plus two spare pieces and an extra brick in each ruler. The system contains 136 color sensors, 16 touch sensors, 102 motors, and includes more than 100,000 Lego pieces. The retail cost, for parts but not labor, would be around $30,000.

While all the materials are Lego, the individual robots are programmed using National Instruments' LabView. This allows the robots to monitor their own battery life (each typically lasts for an average of 4 games) and swap out if they are running low. I'm frankly impressed that Lego Mindstorms is stable enough to interface with another software bundle like LabView. Another point in its favor.

There's no doubt that Lego robots are cool, and they continue to awe fans with a range of fun builds (have you seen the Lego Segway?) We've discussed tons of these projects, and I have no doubt that we'll see more in the future that continue to push the envelope. I wonder were all this robot enthusiasm might be building towards. Given the right platform (maybe Mindstorms is enough?) Lego engineers may be able to design some really innovative approaches to problems. Will they ever match the accomplishments of research robotics? Hmm...let's ask a better question. Will research robotics learn to harness the creativity and cognitive surplus of all these Lego lovers? I hope so. Otherwise these robots are going to keep conquering new gaming territory. It's absurd enough as it is. What's next, a Lego-bot that can kick my butt in bowling?

What...seriously? I quit.

[image credits: Team Hassenplug]

[source: Lego Mindstorms, Team Hassenplug]