Wednesday, June 22, 2005



There's a new robot hanging around the (Radio) Shack. It's called Vex and it's put out by Vex Robotics and sold at Radio Shack.

It's possible to download the manual for free at their site. It gives a fairly good idea of what's in the basic package.

The short review is that Vex is for someone with a strong interest in robotics, an engineering temparament, a good, clean, undisturbed working space, and a fair amount of time.

The box contains a whole lot of small plastic parts, grouped into small plastic packages. And no more documentation than you can get for free. Each package of parts is numbered, but the instructions for building things do not reference the numbers, making it necessary to study the manual carefully to know what part they are talking about.

The manual is not written for the clueless hobbyist. It contains some basic directions, but is not much of a cookbook, nor is it an inspirational guide to building robots. It tells you what to do and what the parts and subsystems are, and makes a few suggestions for working with them.

The robots that can be made with the basic system are simple. The biggest disappointment is that the programming module -- the one that lets you seriously interact with the system -- is an extra add-on, and not in the basic package at all. (In fact, it seems it is not available yet. For some strange reason, the Vex web site carries a discussion thread of people wondering about the programming module... but they do not clear up the confusion.)

(Note: If you're a purist about robotic language, you might argue that once it gets its programming module, it could become a cyborg and not be a robot at all anymore.)

The only way to control the robots' thought processes in the basic kit is to use jumpers.

There are some simple sensors in the basic robot package, and the motion of the robot can be controlled with a simple remote device.

There are hundreds of plastic pieces and once they come out of their little plastic bags they need to be managed, so it is quite important to have a good workspace and NOT have any little plastic-piece-eating children that can find the parts.

After it gets put together, the devices are square and the innards are exposed. This is not a cuddly Furby. It is a practical, straight-forward introduction-to-robotics robot.

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