Home News Please, Lego, let this engineer bring your computer brick to life

Please, Lego, let this engineer bring your computer brick to life

Please, Lego, let this engineer bring your computer brick to life

James Brown loves constructing bizarre shows. Like animatronic skulls, or mechanical bit-flipping mobile automatons. Or, in this case, a whole computer inside a mock Lego brick.

Not simply any brick, both. I’m speaking in regards to the traditional sloped Lego computer systems from our childhood spaceships, now brilliantly introduced to life. They show faux radar scans, scrolling textual content, even an interactive homage to the Loss of life Star trench run concentrating on computer that strikes while you contact the uncovered Lego studs.


James Brown purchased the tiniest, least expensive OLED screens he might discover. He wished to construct a keyboard, however his thoughts’s eye quickly noticed an much more good mixture. He tells The Verge he most likely will not promote them — a minimum of not with out authorized session and a sufficiently small battery! #LEGO

♬ authentic sound – The Verge

Extremely, the entire thing is powered by precise Lego bricks, too — the classic 9V battery field and bricks with electrical contacts that Lego discontinued again within the ‘90s. It’s sufficient to energy a 72 x 40-pixel OLED display and an STM32 microcontroller with a 48MHz Arm Cortex-M0 processor and 16K of flash. And people graphics you see? Other than Doom, which was a reside video stream to the brick, they’re all procedurally generated. He wrote the applications for this tiny computer himself.

None of this was Brown’s authentic plan, however in an interview with The Verge, he makes it sound prefer it got here collectively so properly that it’s nearly begging to be manufactured. Sure, I’m telling you there’s an opportunity you may truly contact one among these sometime.

James Brown, in his workplace, along with his tiny computer systems.
Screenshot by Sean Hollister / The Verge

Final yr, the Weta Workshop graphics engineer (sure, that Weta Workshop) was simply shopping AliExpress when he noticed some extremely small and low-cost 0.42-inch OLED screens. “That’s in regards to the dimension of a keycap,” he thought. He’d construct a mechanical keyboard with a display underneath every key, he advised himself, however the venture was gradual going. “I form of ordered a batch of screens simply to have them sitting there making me really feel responsible,” he says.

However when a Sport Boy for ants arrived on his doorstep this Might, he started to ponder: what if every key had a processor inside, too? Later that very same day, he instantly realized he’d already seen a computer that dimension. Not a working one — a chunk of Lego.

So he sketched it out, and was shocked to see his thought may truly work. “I spent slightly little bit of time in Fusion, simply type of taking a look at the place issues would match inside a brick, simply ensuring it was truly possible and it solely simply… you understand that display is admittedly crammed in there, proper?” There’s solely 0.1mm between the display and the entrance floor of the brick.

He drafted up a circuit board of the utmost dimension that might match and, in a single day, positioned all the essential parts and despatched his design to a board producer on a whim. He paid simply $40, together with transport, for 5 tiny boards.

“It was meant to be type of a throwaway gag; I wasn’t anticipating to have to make it significantly manufacturable,” he says.

However when the boards arrived, he couldn’t imagine how properly they got here out. “It’s completely insane how low-cost and straightforward this stuff is, you understand, to custom-design a brand new computer,” he says. The toughest half was merely soldering on a pair of battery contacts to the underside.

Stick it inside a translucent Lego brick and also you’re finished, proper? No — Brown determined to forged his personal bricks out of translucent resin, too.

Initially, they have been fairly crude: “It was actually a Lego brick in a Lego pot that I poured silicone on to make the mould after which I simply type of shoved it in there, poured the resin in, put one thing on prime to maintain it down, and hoped for the perfect.” He additionally had to fill the brick’s cavity with tender silicone, so resin wouldn’t fill the spot the place the electronics wanted to go.

After his first video went viral, although, he didn’t depart it at that. He ran a pair of wires up to the insides of every stud as a crude contact sensor — “the processor counts how lengthy it takes to pull excessive by way of a resistor,” he says — and coded the X-Wing concentrating on computer and an Elite ship renderer in C to show their array of mesmerizing low-poly wireframes with a press.

He painted on a black lacquer to eliminate among the glow, too, although he’s truly fairly pleased with Lego’s stippled end. “The texturing on the Lego brick does a very good job of antialiasing.”

After which, he acquired critical.

Brown reveals off the brand new 3D board with USB port and battery contacts.
Screenshot by Sean Hollister / The Verge

On Zoom, Brown reveals me the second technology — a brand new three-dimensional circuit board meeting designed to use all the house contained in the brick. It’s acquired built-in battery contacts, a USB port for programming as an alternative of the outdated serial debugging pins, and capacitive contact {hardware} baked into the board itself. He says it could actually reliably detect a finger shifting round a whole area above the brick.

And since he’s not happy with merely streaming Doom to the STM32 processor as a video over these debugging wires, he only in the near past redesigned your entire board to match a Raspberry Pi RP2040 microcontroller, which might truly play Doom too. And he says there might nonetheless be sufficient house to match an IMU for movement controls. Me, I can’t wait to see Lego airplanes flying round a room with a working perspective gyro.

Hello, Pi! The RP2040, now ensconced in Brown’s board.
Photograph: James Brown

And now, the reply to the query you’ve all been ready for: will he take your cash in change for one among these bricks?

He isn’t ruling it out — however undoubtedly not but.

“That is actually not in any state to counsel that this goes to be a product; I’d not need folks to get in contact with me suggesting cash for a pre-order, as a result of that isn’t going to occur,” he says.

Brown now has a 3D-printed mould. It lets him pour resin to type the brick-computer with out first filling the cavity with silicone.
Photograph: James Brown

He does plan to produce a few of them for mates to tinker with, however he’s simply not but positive about manufacturing, certification, licensing, and above all, the blessing or disfavor of The Lego Group itself. Clearing it with Lego, or a minimum of “ensuring that I’m not going to get the load of Lego on prime of me” is the toughest downside, he says. “There’s a distinction between doing one thing that’s acceptable and having the ability to truly battle in the event that they determine to throw their weight round.” Clearly, he doesn’t plan to promote any bricks that actually say “Lego” on their studs — his Friday tweet reveals a brick that ditches the brand.

He additionally desires to discover and match a chargeable battery earlier than he’d contemplate manufacturing, as a result of not everybody has late ‘80s / early ‘90s Lego electronics boards simply sitting in a bin.

“I’m seeing how far I can go together with it,” he says.

When you’re studying this, Lego, I sincerely hope you’ll let him go all the best way. If you work with the group, the outcomes are among the many finest merchandise you’ve ever made.


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