Last week, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the cellphone, I took part in a CBC.ca discussion about how the technology has affected our lives. The focus of the discussion centered on cellphone addiction, although I did my level best to suggest that phones (or technology) are not actually the problem – we are. Put another way, it’s people who have the addiction issues, so it doesn’t really matter what you put in front of us; if we like it, chances are good we’ll get addicted to it.
Such is the case for my burgeoning Lego addiction. What started as an innocent lark, where I bought one simple little playset – I think the Lego TIE Fighter was my first – has turned into something of an obsession. I know it’s becoming a problem because I’m running out of room in my office for it, and the wife frowns on my goofy hobby expanding outside into the rest of the house.
In any event, addictions – whether they’re serious or silly – are a topic for another day. Today, I want to hash out what I think is a million-dollar idea for Lego. And yes, I hope someone from the company is reading this. If this idea does end up getting used, I’ll claim originating rights. And yes, I’ll settle for a payout in Lego.
Here’s the problem. Back when I was a kid, I remember sets used to come with instructions for building whatever it was that was on the front cover. Yet, on the back of the box, there were pictures of different variations that you could achieve using the pieces contained therein. You didn’t get instructions on how to build that stuff, but you could valiantly try to recreate it just from the pictures. So, while you may have bought a space craft set, you could maybe also create a dinosaur or a land vehicle of some sort.
Those variation suggestions have disappeared in the modern Lego age, and that’s really too bad – both for builders and for the company. I wish I could do something else with the assortment of sets in my office, yet I don’t really have the time to sit down and experiment. The Death Star, for example, has nearly 4,000 pieces. I’m sure I could build something awesome out of it, if only I had a suggestion or two to get me started down the right path.
So here’s the idea. The first step involves Lego rolling out 3D instructions for its sets via an app, which the company is finally moving toward starting this summer with its new Mindstorms robot toys. The benefits of such a conversion are obvious: the company will save a bundle by not printing out paper instructions, while users won’t have to worry about losing or damaging their booklets. Three-dimensional instructions would also make for more accurate building, since you could look around the model and get a better look at small or obscured pieces. The sooner the Danish company moves to this model, the better.
The second part of the plan involves crowd-sourcing. At the back of each booklet of Lego instructions, all of the pieces from the set are listed by their catalog number, volume and colour. The company could make the tool with which it creates its own 3D instructions freely accessible to the public, who could then use the pieces listed in a particular set to create virtual instruction manuals for their own creations. So, for instance, if you’ve figured out how to make a giant robot from all those Death Star pieces, you could use Lego’s 3D tool to create your own instructions for it, which would then be shared with every other user.
It’s kind of the LittleBigPlanet model, where the packaged video game that’s pre-created by its developers is really only the start of it. With players getting all of the same tools to create their own levels, a veritable community has sprung up around the game.
The same could happen for Lego, and indeed the company has already seen this sort of thing take hold with Mindstorms, where entire leagues have sprouted up around crowd-sourced and -shared designs. Encouraging variation building and making it easy for people to share their new ideas would greatly add to the value of the sets, not to mention catapult what is otherwise a very physical-world-oriented company firmly into the techno-sphere, where many of its fans reside.
It’s possible that some enterprising individuals could independently come up with their own tool for this sort of thing, but I haven’t seen it yet. It would be infinitely easier for Lego itself to do, since the company already has an extensive catalog of its own pieces and it’s already creating its own 3D instruction tool. I can’t imagine I’m the first person to have thought of this, so the only real question is, why isn’t such a system in place yet?