Building for Good: The Xbox Way

Star Wars’ Galactic Empire never got the message: Build for good. But Microsoft and six other Seattle-area companies did. Seattle’s EMP Museum played host to LEGO’s “Build For Good” charity event late last week, where seven five-man teams were challenged to create something beneficial for humanity using only LEGO Mindstorm EV3 kits.

The souped-up LEGO kits sell for $350, and have electronic components that can be programmed to perform a variety of tasks such as grasping, traveling along paths, and sensing objects via infrared. It was this Mindstorm EV3 kit that inspired 12-year-old inventor Shubham Banerjee to build a Braille printer he dubbed “Braigo.” And, in turn, Braigo inspired LEGO to challenge companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, Expedia, and Nordstrom to use its toys to promote an appreciation for the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines and conjure creative solutions to everyday problems.

The teams competed for charity and the thrill of crushing the competition with the awesome weight of their technology. Amid the backdrop of eclectic pop-culture themed exhibits (and a towering sound-themed sculpture titled “If VI Was IX”), the companies presented their inventions. Microsoft came up with the evening’s most elaborate presentation in the form of a real-life recreation of its animal-themed simulator for Xbox One, “Zoo Tycoon.”

“It’s interactive role-playing for kids with disabilities,” presenter Troy Barnes said. Barnes and his team created ZETA (Zookeeper Extraordinaire Technical Assistant) and ECHO (Exhibit Crate Hauling Overseer) to recreate “Zoo Tycoon’s” gameplay: ECHO picked up and dropped off zoo exhibits, and ZETA traveled along a red-lined track dispensing “food” to hungry animals in the exhibits. The display synched with the real-time events controlled by the “Tycoon” app being played on a Nokia Lumia 920 running Windows Phone 8.1; all told, Barnes said, the team put in 150 hours or so building and programming the project, which also used an Xbox One and Windows Surface 2 Pro.

For their parts, Amazon’s team created a robot that distributed seeds among a path and, comically, used a swatter to knock faux-weeds aside with an almost practiced disdain. “Selfie-Bot,” made by HTC, was built to allow those with mobility impairments to take pictures and post them to the Internet. The inventors for Nordstrom cobbled together a spasming robot with a “party dance mode.” Nord-1, as its license plate heralded, dispensed pills, played snippets from Debarge’s ’80s anthem,
Who’s Johnny? — and topped off its goofy presentation with sound samples from classic “Short Circuit” automaton Johnny Five.

When the smoke cleared, all the participants got consolation ribbons made of LEGO. The “Zoo Tycoon” display netted the award for most entertaining robot — but Nord-1, the pill-dealing robot meant to make taking medicine more fun and less of a chore, won the grand prize. Nordstrom, as the champion of the Mindstorm-building universe, collected a red-and-gray trophy made of (what else?) LEGO, and received five EV3 kits to dispense to a charity of its choosing.