Remember those colored bricks you used to play with as a child, or possibly much more recently? They were great, and still are, for building anything from bridges to trains. But in hindsight they lacked one thing: interactivity.
Things started to change a few years ago when Lego introduced its Mindstorms and, more recently, WeDo educational kits to teach programming to children, adding robotic capabilities to its previously inanimate bricks.
Lego's WeDo 2.0 platform works pretty well, but it does have a limitation: its programming language is a proprietary one, and the company's little bricks are not compatible with more sophisticated coding platforms.
Now a possible alternative is offered by Hungarian startup Vengit. It has developed a series of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled bricks called SBricks Plus, which can be used jointly with ordinary Legos to trigger a pre-programmed set of actions using a variety of languages.
You can, for instance, design a robot that uses motors and proximity sensors to find its way through a maze, or a crane that loads or unloads a weight when a Lego wagon is close by.
The idea is not completely new, because Vengit released an initial, simpler version of the product, named simply SBrick, two years ago. But the new release coming out in December, the SBrick Plus, adds several functionalities.
"The first SBrick was simply a remote controller. So you could, for instance, attach motors to a Lego structure and then control what the motors did, with our smartphone app, or a tablet, or anything," SBrick's project lead Lénárd Pásztor tells ZDNet.
However, the number and the type of actions you could perform with the first SBrick was limited.
"In the new version, all four ports on the brick are both inputs and outputs, so you can attach different sensors, as well as motors and lights. That's the number one difference," Pásztor says.
So whereas the first product was mainly for playing at home, the second one is suited to a far wider range of applications, including educational ones. Since it's possible to connect as many as 16 SBricks at the same time, and they can all communicate with each other, the combinations are limited only by a teacher's imagination.
In fact, the first demo of the SBrick Plus, which successfully ran a Kickstarter campaign in November, raising $106,222 to bring the project to life, was in a private school in Hungary, with a classroom of six-year-old children.
"A model that we created, as a simple demonstration, is a sumo robot that children can build, and once they've finished building it, the robots can fight each other," he says.
Although young students seemed to appreciate Vengit's little bricks, they are also designed for adults. Vengit says the computer-science department of Cambridge University is using them in research projects.
Vengit has also come up with a series of lessons built up of activities to be carried out at home or in school by children, which Vengit describes as having been approved by the Cambridge mathematics department for use in an educational context.
Vengit has sold about 21,500 SBricks units so far, mainly in the US and Germany, but also in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan (about 20 percent of all sales go to Asia). Thanks to the successful crowdfunding campaign, the SBricks Plus is also going into production, with the first pieces to be shipped in December.
Unlike most startup projects, Vengit says SBricks has been profitable from day one, with all the proceeds coming from selling the bricks, which go for $49 each, or $59 each for the Plus version. That might not seem a lot, but considering that for certain projects, like Lego trains, tens of smart bricks could be needed, the numbers start to add up. The company also offers discounts for large orders.
Vengit itself, whose core business is helping companies optimize the performance of their websites, is profitable. Its most famous clients include two other well-known Hungarian startups, presentation company Prezi, and live-streaming service Ustream.
"The reason we started to make the SBrick is that, three and a half years ago, we thought, 'Well, the market seems so good, why instead of working for other people, don't we just try and do something ourselves?'," Pásztor says.
Turns out that might have been the right decision.