Please, Lego, let this engineer bring your computer brick to life

James Brown loves to build weird exhibitions. Like animatronic skulls or bit-flipping mechanical cellular automata. Or, in this case, the entire computer in a dummy Lego brick.

Not just any brick. I’m talking about the classic tilted Lego computers from our childhood spaceships, now wonderfully animated. They display fake radar scans, scrolling text and even an interactive tribute to the computer targeting the Death Star trenches that moves when you touch exposed Lego bricks.

@edge James Brown bought the smallest, cheapest OLED screens he could find. He wanted to build a keyboard, but his mind’s eye soon saw an even more perfect combination. She tells The Verge she probably won’t sell them – at least not without legal advice and a small enough battery! #LEGO BRICKS

♬ original sound – The Verge

Incredibly, the whole thing is also powered by real Lego bricks – an ancient case for 9 V batteries and blocks with electrical contacts, which Lego was discontinued in the 90s. It is enough to power an OLED screen with dimensions of 72 x 40 pixels and an STM32 microcontroller with an Arm Cortex-M0 48 processor MHz and 16 thousand. And those graphics you see? Apart from Moosewho was a live video stream to the brick, they all are procedurally generated. He wrote the programs for this tiny computer himself.

None of this was Brown’s original plan, but in an interview with Borderlandmakes it sound as if everything came together so well that it begs to be produced. Yes, I’m telling you there’s a chance you’ll touch one of them someday.

James Brown in his office with his little computers.
Screenshot: Sean Hollister / The Verge

Last year, the graphic engineer Weta Workshop (yes, that Weta Workshop) was just browsing on AliExpress when he noticed incredibly small and cheap 0.42 inch OLED screens. It’s about the size of a key, he thought. He figured he would build a mechanical keyboard with a screen under each key, but the project is moving slowly. “I ordered some screens just to have them sit there making me feel guilty,” he says.

But when Game Boy for ants Arriving at its doorstep in May this year, he began to wonder: what if every key had a processor inside as well? Later that day, he suddenly realized that … already I’ve seen a computer of this size. Not working – Lego piece.

So he sketched it and was surprised to see that his idea could actually work. “I spent a while at Fusion just looking at where things would fit in the brick, just making sure it was actually doable and only just… you know the screen is really clogged up there, right? There is only 0.1 mm between the screen and the front face of the brick.

He developed a printed circuit board with the maximum size that would fit, and within one day he put all the essential components in and sent his design to the board manufacturer on a whim. He paid just $ 40 for five tiny boards, including shipping.

“It was supposed to be a kind of disposable gag; I didn’t expect that I would have to make it particularly susceptible to production, ”she says.

But when the boards came out, he couldn’t believe how well they had fared. “It’s absolutely crazy how cheap and easy it is, you know, design a new computer to order,” he says. The hardest part was just the soldering a pair of battery contacts, to the bottom.

Put it in the transparent Lego brick and it’s ready, right? No – Brown also decided to pour his own bricks with translucent resin.

They were pretty primitive at first: “It was literally a Lego brick in a Lego pot that I poured silicone on to make a mold, then I just stuffed it there, poured resin, put something on top to hold it down and hoped for the best . ” He also had to fill the cavity of the brick with soft silicone so that the resin did not fill the place where the electronics should be.

However, after his first video went viral, he didn’t give it up. He led a pair of wires into each pin as a primitive touch sensor – “the processor counts how long it takes to reach high with the resistor,” he says – and he coded the X-Wing target computer and Elite Ship renderer at C to display their array of mesmerizing low-poly wireframe models using the press.

He painted over black lacquer to get rid of some glare as well, though he’s actually quite happy with the Lego spotted finish. “Texturing the Lego brick is really good at smoothing the edges.”

And then he became serious.

Brown presents a new 3D board with a USB port and battery contacts.
Screenshot: Sean Hollister / The Verge

At Zoom Brown, he shows me the second generation – a new three-dimensional PCB assembly designed for use all space inside the brick. It has built-in battery contacts, a USB port for programming in place of the old pins for serial debugging, and capacitive touch hardware built into the board itself. It says it can reliably detect a finger moving all over the area above the brick.

And because he is not satisfied only with streaming Moose to STM32 CPU as video through these debug wires, recently redesigned the entire board to fit Raspberry Pi RP2040 microcontroller, which can actually play Moose too. And he says that maybe … still have enough space to fit the IMU for traffic control. I can’t wait to see Lego planes flying around the room with the gyro working.

Hi Pi! RP2040, now included in Brown’s plate.
Photo: James Brown

Now for the answer to the question you’ve all been waiting for: will he take money from you in exchange for one of these bricks?

He does not rule it out – but certainly not yet.

“This cannot really imply that it will be a product; I don’t want people to contact me to offer money to pre-order, because that’s not going to happen, ‘he says.

Brown now has a 3D printed form. It allows him to pour the resin into the brick-computer without first filling the cavity with silicone.
Photo: James Brown

He plans to produce some of them for friends to tinker with, but he’s just not sure yet about the production, certification, licensing and most of all the blessings or disfavour of the Lego Group itself. Cleaning it with Lego bricks, or at least “making sure I don’t get the weight of Lego bricks,” is the most difficult problem, he says. “There is a difference between doing something that is acceptable and being able to actually fight if they decide to shed their weight.” Of course, I do not plan to sell any bricks that literally say “Lego” on their studs – his Friday tweet shows a brick that sheds the logo.

He also wants to find and install a battery pack before he starts considering manufacturing, as not everyone has late 80s / early 90s Lego tiles that just lie in the bin.

“I can see how far I can go with that,” he says.

If you’re reading this, Lego, I sincerely hope you will let him go all out. Community work is one of the best products you’ve ever created.

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