New MOSS Robots Satisfying to Build, but Too Easy to Crush
Since I am the father of an 8-year-old nerd, and since I am a nerd myself, for the past three years I have been buying toy robot kits. For the kid, of course. Each birthday the kits are a little more advanced — more programmable, more intricate. But a few days ago I received a new robot construction system from Modular Robotics that I don’t think I’d consider for my son.
A magnetic MOSS scooper robot, from the big ($480) kit. Its Bluetooth module makes it steerable from a smartphone. (Photos by Rafe Needleman/Yahoo Tech)
There are three reasons for this: First, these kits make fragile robots, and when they fall apart, pieces roll under the furniture. Second, they are very expensive. And, third, I think I’d have more fun with them than he would.
The kits are called MOSS robots. The core pieces are small cubes that have powerful magnets in their corners. Small steel spheres fit into indents in the corners and serve as mechanical connectors between blocks, as well as providing the electrical ground for the power and data signals that are sent between the faces of connected blocks.
The blocks are functional: There’s a battery block in each kit, and depending on the kit you get there are also various moving pieces (motors and pivots), a variety of sensors (light, sound, distance), a Bluetooth module (for smartphone-controlled robots), and various mechanical bits like wheels, braces, and inert connector blocks.
The scooper robot under construction. The metal balls are held on with magnets embedded in the blocks.
Working with MOSS is tactilely pleasing. The pieces snap together nicely. Following the instructions with each kit reminds one, somewhat, of a good Lego Technic kit, in which you can see the designer’s mechanical creativity revealed a bit at a time as you put the kit together, and then at the end you marvel at the way it all fits so elegantly.
Almost all MOSS pieces have a dual purpose: They’re both structure and software, or at the very least you’re using them to carry signals from one place (like the Bluetooth module) to another. That means you have to think on two levels when designing your robots: how the construction will hold together, and how the data and power will flow through the blocks.
While this is a rewarding intellectual exercise, I was not sure it was illustrative of real-world robot building. When engineering a mechanical system, at least at the start of a design, the structure, power, action, sensing, and data needs each present different challenges and call for different solutions and materials. In a MOSS robot, everything is cubes. The solutions you come up with to make a MOSS robot would not appear to translate well to typical building materials, even if the discipline of multilevel thinking might.