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

James Brown loves to create awkward displays. Like the animatronic skull, or mechanical bit-flipping cellular automaton. Or, in this case, an entire computer inside a fake Lego brick.

Not just any brick. I’m talking about the classic sloped Lego computer from the spaceships of our childhood, now brought to life splendidly. They display simulated radar scans, scrolling text, even an interactive tribute to the Death Star Trench Run targeting computer that moves when you touch an exposed Lego stud.

@ Verge

James Brown bought the smallest, cheapest OLED screen. He wanted to make a keyboard, but his mind’s eye soon saw an even more perfect combination. He tells The Verge that he probably won’t sell them – at least not without legal consultation and not without a small enough battery! #lego

Original Soundtrack – The Verge

Incredibly, the whole thing is also powered by actual Lego bricks – the old 9V battery box and bricks with electrical contacts that Lego discontinued back in the 90s. That’s enough to power a 72 x 40-pixel OLED screen and an STM32 microcontroller with a 48MHz Arm Cortex-M0 processor and 16K flash. And those graphics you see? except Apocalypsewhat was a live video stream for brick, they’re all procedurally generated. He himself wrote the programs for this small computer.

None of this was Brown’s original plan, but in an interview ledgeOf course, it looks like it’s come together so well that it’s almost begging to be built. Yes, I’m telling you that someday you might actually touch one of these.

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

Last year, Weta Workshop graphics engineer (yes, He Weta Workshop) was browsing AliExpress when he saw some incredibly small and cheap 0.42-inch OLED screens. “It’s about the size of a keycap,” he thought. He would build a mechanical keyboard with a screen under each key, he told himself, but the project was slow going. “I order a batch of screens so they sit there making me feel guilty,” he says.

but when a game boy for ants Arriving at his door this May, he began to think: What if each key also had a processor? Later that day, he suddenly realized that he already Saw a computer of that size. Not going to work – a piece of lego.

So he sketched it out, and was surprised to see that his idea could actually work. “I spent a little bit of time in Fusion just to see where things would fit inside a brick, just making sure it was actually possible and that it was only right now… You do know that the screen is really frozen in there, right?” There’s only 0.1mm between the screen and the front surface of the brick.

He designed a circuit board of the maximum size that would fit and, in a single day, placed all the basic components and sent his design to a board manufacturer. He paid just $40, including shipping, for five short boards.

“It had to be a kind of throwback lie; I wasn’t expecting it to be particularly buildable,” he says.

But when the boards came, they couldn’t believe how good they were. “It’s absolutely crazy how cheap and easy this stuff is, you know, to custom-design a new computer,” he says. the hardest part was just soldering a pair of battery contacts Below

Stick it inside a translucent Lego brick and you’re done, right? No – Brown decided to make his bricks out of translucent resin as well.

Basically, they were pretty crude: “It was literally a Lego brick in a Lego pot that I put silicone in to make the mold and then I rolled it in 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 the resin wouldn’t fill up where the electronics needed to go.

However, after his first video went viral, he did not leave it here. They ran a pair of wires to the inside of each stud as a raw touch sensor — “the processor counts how long it takes to pull high through a resistor,” he says — and connected the X-Wing targeting computer and a coded the elite ShipRenderer in C to display your array of mesmerizing low poly wireframes with a single press.

He also painted on a black lacquer to get rid of some of the shine, though he’s actually quite happy with Lego’s stippled finish. “The textures on the Lego brick do a really good job of antialiasing.”

And then, he got serious.

Brown shows off the new 3D board with the USB port and battery contacts.
Screenshot by Sean Hollister/The Verge

On Zoom, Brown shows me the second generation – a new three-dimensional circuit board assembly designed to use All Brick inside. It has built-in battery contacts, a USB port for programming instead of the old serial debugging pins, and capacitive touch hardware baked into the board itself. He says it can reliably detect a finger moving across the area over the brick.

and because he is not satisfied with only streaming Apocalypse As a video on those debugging wires for the STM32 processor, they recently redesigned the entire board to fit the Raspberry Pi RP2040 microcontroller, which can actually be play play Apocalypse very. and he says there might be Even then There should be enough space to fit an IMU for speed control. Me, I can’t wait to see Lego airplanes flying around a room with attitude to work.

hi pie! The RP2040, now sits on Brown’s board.
Photo: James Brown

And now, the answer to the question you’ve all been waiting for: Will he take your money for one of these bricks?

He’s not ruling it out – but certainly not yet.

“It’s not really in any state to suggest that this is going to be a product; I don’t want people contacting me to suggest money for pre-orders, because that’s not going to happen.” ,” he says.

Brown now has a 3D-printed jig as part of his mold. This lets him pour resin to make a brick-computer without first filling the brick cavity with silicon.
Photo: James Brown

He plans to produce a few of them for friends to snuggle up with, but he’s not yet sure of the manufacturing, certification, licensing, and above all, the Lego Group’s blessing or adversity. Clearing it out with Lego, or at least “making sure I’m not getting the weight of Lego on me,” is the hardest problem, he says. “There’s a difference between doing something that’s acceptable and actually being able to fight if they decide to throw their weight around.” Apparently, he doesn’t plan to sell any bricks that literally say “LEGO” on their studs – his Friday tweet Shows a brick that engraves the logo.

He wants to find and fit a rechargeable battery before considering manufacturing, as not everyone has a late ’80s/early ’90s Lego electronics board just sitting in a bin.

“I’m going to see how far I can go with this,” he says.

If you’re reading this, Lego, I sincerely hope you’ll totally let him. When you work with the community, the results are among the best products you can create.

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