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The Free Universal Construction Kit (fffff.at)
191 points by danboarder on Feb 17, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

After the initial reaction of "Neato!" I started thinking what it would mean if when I first got my legos (a big tub, hand-me-down from an older cousin), they had come with a few dozen of these. I can't imagine what I would have built, but it certainly would have been more interesting... and I might have grown up with somewhat stronger convictions about interoperability and the senselessness of walled gardens :)

I don't find walled gardens senseless at all. One of the nice things about a box full of Lego (not legos) is that you can take consistency for granted. It's the difference between a language with a clear grammar and a pidgin language.

I'm not against things like this, but there's no guarantee of interoperability producing superior results. You're just as likely to end up with a chaotic mess if you don't build with a plan in mind; one of the other benefits of a single system is that it forces you into more creative problem-solving.

I agree with your first point that 'walled gardens' or closed systems like Lego provide consistency, however the second video in the linked article demonstrates a kid who I would argue is more creative by thinking beyond one system. ( https://vimeo.com/37778890 ) In the video he is "thinking outside the box" and building a car by connecting three different construction kits. Of course this requires him to have an understanding of all three systems (rather than just one), but the potential is to build things by that would otherwise not be possible. [edit - link to video]

> Lego (not legos)

Actually, "Lego® bricks." Lego severely admonishes using their name as a noun, whether pluralized or not. But, due to that admonishment and a thing called reactance[1], I was being purposefully breezy with my language. :)

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reactance_(psychology)

Any time you see a demand to use special characters or formatting in 'how you should refer to our stuff', feel free to completely ignore it, since at that point it's just marketing fluff.

I remember one company whose marketing department demanded that every mention of our product be in the assigned font, bolded, with part of the name subscripted and ®'d. Even in support emails. Even in followups. They never saw just how amazingly artificial it was and how it actually created (mild) barriers to rapport with users. Needless to say, everyone in sales and support that had a clue decided to put that directive into the round file.

I agree. However - 'Legos' is just stupid. Who decided a single brick was a 'lego' and therefore the plural was 'legos'? It sounds bizarre to me as a Brit :)

PS It's maths, not math.

Genericization happens all the time. Many brands throughout modern history have fallen into similar patterns[0] (capitalization sometimes, but not always, survives). Where I grew up in Mississippi, many people would refer to soft drinks as "[Cc]oke" which led to interesting excerpts such as "What kind of coke do you want? We have Coke, Sprite, Dr. Pepper...".

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genericization

I was thinking about this, and I'm not sure what the rule is.

On the one hand you have 'Meccano', 'Playmobile' and similar, when referring to collections of brand items.

But on the other hand, you would refer to a single brand car park as 'Toyotas' or a collection of single brand laptops as 'Lenovos' without anyone batting an eye.

I'm with you - 'legos' sounds stupid to me - but really I need someone more formally trained in grammar for this one :)

It comes down to whether the stuff is perceived as lots of little indistinguishable bits, or a few big chunks. The former category (mass or non-count nouns) includes water, grain (in the sense of a quantity of grain, not lots of kinds of grains), sand, snow, etc. They are not inflected for the plural and do not take numbers - we say "three grains of sand" not "three sands". It's plausible for Lego to work the same way - so "ten pieces of lego", not "ten legos".

Perhaps in these oft-cited days of lego sets that are more like a few big pieces than lots of little pieces, people will start to think differently.

Exactly. In English "Lego" is a mass noun, like water and sand. We say "a piece of lego" or "a lego piece" to identify a single brick.

I guess in American they don't treat it as a mass noun, and maybe they say "a lego" instead of "a piece of lego".

"three sands" sounds like something Clarkson would say ... I think, his image immediately flashed in my mind when reading that.

Look, if you're going to be pedantic about it, at least be correctly pedantic. It's not Lego®, it's LEGO® (all caps), as in "LEGO® is a trademark of the LEGO Group..." etc.


The pedantry over lego/legos debates seems to be inescapable on HN any time legos are mentioned. Some people call them legos people -- get over it.

The pedantry period is inescapable. I really wish that would change. Everyone wants to be right, though.

Somehow your comment reminds me of the American public education system. It enforces a rigid, highly structured, linear way of thinking. It is very much rules-based. In fact, we spend much of our time learning rules vs. how to think.

The notion that a single construction system is better fits with this. It expresses a desire to eliminate variables, clearly define the rules, create a very tight system, etc. But, I think the statement that it forces you into more creative problem solving is exactly backwards. It may encourage resourcefulness, which entails some creativity to be sure. But, it asks "what can be done within a confined, limited space?" vs. "what can be done if there were virtually no limits?"

As Americans, I think we need to improve upon the latter style of thinking. It is the source of true invention and creativity vs. mere innovation or improvement upon existing creations as encouraged by the former.

Maybe this is, in part, why we see so many copycat startups and businesses built upon some iterative improvement to an existing process or idea. Instead of always asking, "how can we do something slightly better?", we need to ask more, "what else can we do?"

That's amusing, because I'm not an American.

But, it asks "what can be done within a confined, limited space?" vs. "what can be done if there were virtually no limits?"

That's magical thinking. There are always limits, it's just a matter of which set you pick to work within. You can draw anything you like with a pencil and paper, but if you intend a representational drawing you'll still need to think about things like perspective and dimension, even if you are bending them like MC Escher. Otherwise you get finger paintings, and while I enjoy some aimless noodling as much as the next person (eg http://snd.sc/XeyYnD), it doesn't go anywhere in particular.

Never said that you were an American; only that your post reminded me of the American public education system. BTW, I also did not claim that tne American system is unique. It is only the one with which I am most familiar.

Otherwise, I think it's safe to say that you missed my point. I am not advocating constant aimless noodling. I am saying that we focus here entirely too much on the importance of rules and not nearly enough on the creation of new rules.

In short, perhaps you took my statement regarding "virtually no limits" a bit too literally. As it is, you present a false choice between rigid, highly structured, rules-based thinking and pointless meandering about without any basis in reality. Certainly you see a middle ground?

As for my initial read on your comments, what triggered me was your statement that one system (with more rigid rules) inspired more creativity. In my view, you can argue other merits of such a system, but creativity is exactly not one of them. And true creativity is what we are sorely missing in this country and the world.

BTW, I will also take you up on your "magical thinking" comment.

In fact, removing limits is sometimes exactly what's needed to spark true creativity. Holding the rules of the current system in one's head can be terribly limiting while trying to create something new. It binds one to what is vs what could be.

One can always start with the possibilities and later apply known rules. Creation is frequently an iterative process. There are many thinking styles and what seems counterintuitive to you may be what inspires others. In any case, a system that is relentlessly focused on rules certainly could use some balance. There is virtually no emphasis on pure creation or even critical thinking vs. fact-based learning.

I don't think this is an accurate description of that system. What's true about it is that it is dealing with scale issues that don't apply for home schooling, so they need to do things like having 1st-graders line up in order to go out to recess, trying to be consistent in how rules are applied, and worrying about the cost of production of cafeteria foods. These make the system look bureaucratic because bureaucracy is the simplest way to make an institution work at scale.

Also, this is an artifact of our culture: we are socializing kids into a system where they go sit at a desk and work within a bureaucracy because these are features of our culture. We are not pastoral nomads, we are not jungle hunter-gatherers, we are not inhabitants of tiny city-states. And most people in our society are not wealthy rockstar founders working in SF.

When I mentioned rules, I wasn't referring to social rules, such as lining up for recess or not punching little Billy when the teacher's not looking.

Instead, I was referring to what we teach our kids academically. That is, we focus more on them knowing the "facts". I believe that we need to spend much more time teaching how to think creatively and critically. Yes, facts are important. We just need balance.

I agree with you 100% that we are teaching kids to work in a bureaucracy; creating "cogs for the machine", I like to say. But I think that's exactly the problem. We need to open up new opportunities for life fulfillment as well as paths to societal contributions. But it's a self-serving cycle. We need cogs so we teach kids to be rule-regurgitating cogs. But, how many more photo sharing apps do we need? OTOH we could use that cure for cancer or alternative fuel source or other thing that has yet to be imagined.

I argue that we could be much further down some of these paths if we taught our kids to imagine, think, and create in addition to teaching them the rules.

Taking an analogy to programming languages, some languages are much better at specific tasks than others. Having the ability to use those languages interoperably with others makes it possible to construct a much more efficient system than if you would be forced to use one single language for everything.

"forces you into more creative problem-solving."

Dealing with constraints is the essence of good design.

The interface kit creates a new set of design challenges, particularly with regard to color palette and materials - e.g. Kinects and Tinkertoys have map color to dimensions. Lincoln Logs map color to function. The connectors presumably have their own color. The challenge is expressing a design aesthetic rather than making a kludge.

The physical interface isn't enough.

Since we are talking about digital files here, you can print them what ever color you want, and even out off different materials such as stainless steel.

In theory sure, but the color 3DP won't snap fit and the stainless doesn't have the tolerances to interface well. So really, there's a couple colors from: clear, white, gray, black to choose from.

The technology will only get better. If you were really wanting perfect pieces and had the skills you could use the files to create a die and use all any plastic or material you wanted to.

Ah yes, but after a generation, a pidgin language (if passed on to a speaker's children) turns into a creole language, which is comparable in power, vocabulary, and expressiveness to any other language[0].

0. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creole_language

How about a garden with directions on the ground? Like Android, that gives you suggestions with most popular apps. If anything, it fits everyone.

In the example of the legos, you could include a document with examples of what you can build, and note that at any moment you can improve anything here and there.

Heh, also got from older cousins a total of 3 buckets. One of Lego, the other two from non-compatible brands.

It pissed me off that the Lego bucket had tons of pieces, but one of the other two had some custom pieces from a space shuttle that were awesome, but fitted nothing else.

Unfortunately, the Makerbot is no longer open source, which rather ruins their point in mentioning it (the UCK was first published before MB went closed and evil, MB technology is entirely derived from originally open hardware and software).

What's evil about it? You can simply build the older generation makerbot. It's no different than what Apple did with FreeBSD and NetBSD by way of Next, apart from the fact that Apple did not actually make FreeBSD or NetBSD.

Anybody, including Makerbot could make a commercial successor to Makerbot.

What's evil is taking open hardware and closing it. There is nothing in their machine that is not a direct derivative of GPL-licensed reprap technology, and they give neither attribution nor source back. In addition, they are patenting technology developed openly. It's a pretty disgusting thing to do.

I agree it's disgusting. So, the best way to deal with it is very simple: utterly ignore them. Those patents aren't worth the paper they are printed on, prior art abounds. The hobbyist community won't care about those patents at all, but any other commercial entity they plan to sue will wipe them out with their portfolio, CNC stuff is a patent minefield. Okuma, Heidenhain, Bosch, Deckel and tons of other very large, very wealthy and established companies will not be impressed at all and have enough patents of their own that they could probably stop them from going to market at all if they desired to do so.

Additive or subtractive, it's a detail and lots of these companies are active in both fields.

I really don't see the problem. Simply ignore them, beat them on price and features and they'll go to their deserved end, which is to cease to exist.

And if you want to speed it up then you should sue them for taking what's yours (if you were a contributor to some bit that made it into their commercial offering), a lawsuit testing the GPL in that fashion is overdue anyway. Probably they'll fold before it goes to trial, as they always do.

Ignoring them is my strategy as well, but it doesn't help that others are mentioning them so prominently as an open option. I felt it was necessary to say something to point out this is no longer the case.

I had both Fisher Technik and lego, and combining them in one project required some serious fiddling. I'd rigged my own connector pieces, some lego blocks with the stubs cut off glued to some fisher elements. Even without a 3D printer, if you want it badly enough and you can afford to sacrifice a few pieces there are ways to get what you want.

When I was a kid fisher technik was considered better than lego but far far more expensive. There were analog electronic and logic blocks and it was (far) easier to make functioning machinery with Fisher Technik than it was with lego (back then the lego robotics revolution had definitely not happened yet).

Whether it was intentional or not, it’s hard to ignore the acronym, when spelled out.

I am puzzled by the non-commercial restriction. If someone could produce those kits and sell them at scale, it will make such kits more universally accessible.

"Some may express concern that the Free Universal Construction Kit infringes such corporate prerogatives as copyright, [etc.]. [...] the public is legally allowed to make 3D prints that mate with proprietary parts, especially in cases (the “Must Fit Exception”) where a piece’s shape “is determined by the need to connect to or fit into or around another product”"

Further down he notes that this only holds for private and non-commercial use.


I see what you did there. (to people downvoting parent, it's the acronym for this kit)

Right, that jumped out at me right away, and I wasn't sure if this was a parody or not. Seems like an unnecessary inside joke for something ultimately for kids.

Am I the only one who doesn't find this terribly exciting? I mean, it's a neat idea, but I don't see it to be that interesting to actually play with.

The beauty of each set is its self-consistency. If you attached this to that, then there's a good chance that 3rd and 4th will fit right in too. But once you start mixing sets, all the proportions fly out of the window and so to assemble something meaningful you would still need to build modules from the same set and then use these adapters to connect them together. Nice to have, certainly, but it doesn't sound that dramatically more interesting.

i don't see how this could really work.

the tolerances required for legos to work are quite small. they mention this in the implementation section which says they use 2.5 micron measurement.

but 3D printers are not nearly so accurate. makerbot's page says their latest is 100 micron.

so if you print the design, it will have the wrong measurements.

what's missing here?

It's just a coupling system. If you want to attach Legos to K'Nex, they will work fine in a handful of spots.

Building an entire structure out of an AM construction set would be a disaster. Even professional grade printers aren't even close to 2.5 micron.

This is an interface mapper for hardware. V. cool.

So, this is the kid version of The Universal Business Adapter? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIOqOxI0K_I

Is their logo for 'Free Art' just the NBC logo mirrored and with other colors? Even the pecker is in it ...

It's not actually free items, it's free plans.

This is not a good title.

Think free as in freedom, not as in beer.

Maybe they ought to call it Libre Universal Construction Kit instead.

That would certainly form a more palatable acronym.

I bet you were disappointed by the "Free Nelson Mandela" movement.

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