Monster Chess - Part 2

| Feb 2, 2011
From the LEGO Club Website:
MINDSTORMS® Monster Chess – Part 2!
Last time, we brought you the story of Monster Chess, a gigantic custom LEGO creation made using MINDSTORMS® NXT programmable bricks and an incredible amount of creativity and skill.
So who is behind this beast? We sat down for a chat with the mad professor himself, the monster master: LEGO and robotics fan Steve Hassenplug!
Steve may have graduated from a college most famous for giving the world Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon, but Purdue University is also one of the largest technology schools in the US and has a great history in the world of robotics.
Is that where it started, Steve?
“I think going to an engineering school was more a continuation of something that started with my own LEGO blocks, when I was a kid.”
And what do you do now?
“I work as a software engineer in Indiana, USA. I have two boys who are 8 & 10, and enjoy building robots and playing chess.”
What gave you the idea for Monster Chess?
“The Monster Chess idea came from a couple different places. My friends and I wanted to create some big robots. We messed around with a few different ideas, but couldn't come up with a single goal. After [LEGO fan convention] Brickworld '09, I went on vacation with my family and saw a large yard chess set, where the board was about 8 feet across. Then, we watched "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" with Wizard's Chess. That's when it hit me that we could do something like that with LEGO bricks.”
Did you have any trouble persuading the rest of your team to do it?
“No, I really didn't. After six or eight years of hanging out, the guys kind of know it's coming. It's sort of like getting on a roller-coaster that you've never seen before. We don't really know what's coming, or how it will turn out, but it's always a fun journey.”
So just how smart is Monster Chess? You’re a serious chess player; can it beat you?
“I'm probably the best chess player in our group, but I'm not sure I really stand a chance against it. Pretty early in the project, we realized there was a standard for chess engines (all the logic that makes a computer smart at chess) and we could download a chess engine and just plug it into our software.”
Monster Chess isn’t your first robotic creation, right? What else have you worked on?
“One of the first big things we created as a group was the Great Ball Contraption. It was designed to allow each of us to create a small part of a larger Rube Goldberg (or Heath Robinson) type machine, and then connect them all together to have a much larger creation. It's caught on, and has been used in schools and by groups around the world.”
What made MINDSTORMS NXT the right technology for your creation?
“I started building with LEGO pieces when I was young, and I know how much that did to help me understand how to solve problems. I want to pass that on to kids today.
If I limit my building to LEGO elements, that actually makes it a bit easier, because I never really have to figure out what materials I'm going to use, so I can focus more on simply solving the problem at hand.”
What other robotics projects do you admire?
“One of my favorite type of robots are holonomic robots, which are able to drive any direction, and even rotate while they drive. They're sometimes called omni wheels, and can be pretty interesting to watch.”
Obviously, very few LEGO Club members would have the resources to build a chessboard this big! What would you recommend as a good starting point for a young robotics engineer working with MINDSTORMS for the first time? “A really good challenge to start with is Sumo [wrestling]. Build a robot that can push another robot out of a circle. It works best if you can find a couple friends, and they each have to build a robot. I've learned a lot about what does and doesn't work by competing with my friends.”
So what’s next for Monster Chess?
“We actually have two copies of Monster Chess...”
…TWO?! Wow!
“There are so many places we want to take it, we had to make a second one. I just sent one on a trip that should cover several thousand miles, going to California, then to Denmark, before it returns home in a couple months.”
Will you be working more on Monster Chess in the future, or do you plan to move on to your next robotics project?
“We always have four or five things come up. Our next big project will be creating another board game, called RoboRally. I'm pretty excited about it.
But we still have many little things to do with Monster Chess. There are always things we can do to make it better. Maybe that's just because I never really think any project is finished. There's always some way to make it better.”
You seem awfully nice for a mad scientist. What’s that all about?
“It’s not like I’m an evil genius. There’s a difference between the two. A mad scientist is simply a scientist who has become obsessively involved with their work. Anyone who knows me, would say I clearly fall into that category.
On the other hand, I guess I have had a few people call me an evil genius.”
Thanks, Steve! And good luck with your robot army!


CheshireCat150 said... [REPLY]

Wow, this interview was really interesting.

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