Saturday, May 13, 2006

Looks Like A Fish, Moves Like A Fish, Steers Like a Cow: My Long Tail Adventure

by Tom Bozzo

...or, "So I am a LEGO maniac. What's it to you?"

As I'd mentioned earlier in the week, the very cool LEGO Factory concept — design your own LEGO set on the computer, transmit the CAD file to, and get the real parts to build it — took a huge leap towards very cool reality with the introduction of the first incarnation that actually provides fully customized parts assortments.*

Clearly, this involves some work on the part of the customer-designer. So how does it work? The short answer is pretty well. A fuller report with some pictures is after the jump.

After an 18 MB download, I installed the Lego Digital Designer (LDD) software without difficulty on my iMac G5. LDD has a totally nonstandard interface that's undoubtedly aimed at children; since the Mac download package omits the instructions, I had some difficulty navigating the controls at first. Based on the usually quiet iMac's fan noise, LDD sounds like a CPU hog.

The current part assortment includes 254 brick types, not counting color variations. While only a small fraction of the full variety of LEGO bricks, it's a workable start. Color availability can be limiting even for some varieties of basic brick, though. Looking over the available pieces, my best bet for a creation based on something I'd already more-or-less thought out was this:


However, many of the white and gray pieces aren't available currently, nor are the canopy and the parts used for the large engines on the wingtips. A workable assortment was available in black. The only windshield available would make for an open-roofed air-speeder if the model was somehow to accommodate a minifigure.

In black, the speeder could be a hearse, a limousine, or a sinister-looking hot rod. I went for a combination of all three:

Picture 3

I got what I like to think of as an air-speeder suitable for the fictional rock star Hotblack Desiato — Douglas Adams fans might recall that in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Desiato was spending a year dead for tax reasons.

Picture 2

The model's special hidden feature is a slot where the Han Solo in carbonite brick can be inserted. Despite its Star Wars origin, it's as suitable a representation of a temporarily deceased rock star as anything.

As for the time commitment, the speeder contains 250 pieces and took a couple hours to build. It was occasionally slowed down by pieces that didn't want to slide into place. The model uses an elementary form of what's called "SNOT"** in the LEGO community — the fuselage is built with upper and lower halves — and LDD sometimes resisted brick placements where the halves meet. If LDD allows you to view models edge-on, I couldn't figure out how; that's the most significant functionality shortfall I could discern.

As for the pricing strategy, it seems to be reasonable. The 250-piece speeder prices out to $28.84, in the unlikely event you want one of your very own. (None of which, as far as I'm aware, goes to me.) Mass-produced sets not atypically run 8-10 cents/piece — depending a lot on how many small parts are included. Full customization at an 11 cent/piece average is not bad at all.

More when the real thing arrives in the mail...

Go to the Marginal Utility main page.
Not sure if it's my browser or the new technology on your page but I can no longer see the * and ** notes at the bottom....Happy Mother's Day to Suzanne. My present is getting to be alone, on the computer, for more than 10 minutes without someone wanting something :-)
If there's no footnote at the bottom, try mousing over the asterisk. Since Firefox doesn't show the entire notes this way, I mostly reserve the "easter egg" variation for short notes.
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