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


James Brown likes to build weird displays. Like animatronic skulls or bit-flipping mechanical cellular automata. Or, in this case, an entire computer inside a fake Lego brick.

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

@edge

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

♬ original sound – The Verge

Incredibly, the whole thing is also powered by real Lego bricks – the vintage 9V battery box and bricks with electrical contacts that Lego ditched in the 90s. Just power a 72 x 40 pixel OLED display and a microcontroller STM32 with a 48 MHz Arm Cortex-M0 processor and 16K of flash. And those graphs you see? Apart from Losswhich was a live video stream to the brick they are all procedurally generated. He himself wrote the programs for this little computer.

None of this was Brown’s original plan, but in an interview with The edge, it looks like it’s put together so well it’s almost begging to be made. Yes, I’m telling you there’s a chance you’ll touch one of them someday.

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

Last year, the graphics engineer at Weta Workshop (yes, this Weta Workshop) was browsing AliExpress when he spotted some incredibly small and cheap 0.42-inch OLED screens. “That’s about the size of a keycap,” he thought. He would build a mechanical keyboard with a screen under each key, he thought, but the project was moving slowly. “I kind of ordered a bunch of screens just to sit there, which makes me feel guilty,” he says.

But when a Game Boy for ants Arriving on his doorstep in May, he began to think: what if every key also had a processor inside? Later that same day, he suddenly realized that he had already seen a computer of this size. Not a job – a piece of Lego.

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

He worked out a printed 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 maker on a whim. He only paid $40 including shipping for five small boards.

“It was supposed to be a sort of disposable gag; I didn’t expect to have to make it particularly manufacturable,” he says.

But when the boards arrived, he couldn’t believe how far they had come out. “It’s absolutely crazy how cheap and easy this hardware is, you know, to custom design a new computer,” he says. The hardest part was just soldering a pair of battery contacts down.

Stick it inside a translucent Lego brick and you’re done, right? No – Brown also decided to cast his own translucent resin bricks.

Originally they were quite crude: “It was literally a Lego brick in a Lego jar that I poured silicone over to make the mold and then I kind of pressed it in there, I poured the resin in, put something on it 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 where the electronics needed to go.

After his first video went viral, however, he didn’t stop there. He ran a pair of wires inside each stud as a raw touch sensor – “the processor counts how long it takes to pull high through a resistor”, he says – and coded it. X-Wing targeting computer and a Elite ship the renderer in C to display their range of fascinating low-poly wireframes with a press.

He also painted over a black lacquer to get rid of some of the glow, although he was actually quite happy with the dotted Lego finish. “The texturing on the Lego brick does a really good job of anti-aliasing.”

And then he got serious.

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

Brown shows off the new 3D board with 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 everything the space inside the brick. It features built-in battery contacts, a USB port for programming instead of the old serial debug pins, and capacitive touch hardware built into the board itself. He says he can reliably detect a finger moving around an entire region above the brick.

And because he’s not content with just diffusion Loss to the STM32 processor as a video on these debug threads, he recently redesigned the whole board to fit a Raspberry Pi RP2040 microcontroller, which could actually to play Loss too. And he says there may be still have enough space to install an IMU for motion controls. Me, I can’t wait to see Lego airplanes flying around a room with a working attitude gyroscope.

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

Hello Pi! The RP2040, now installed in Brown’s board.
Photo: James Brown

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

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

“It’s really not in any condition to suggest it will be a product; I wouldn’t want people contacting me to suggest money for a pre-order because that’s not going to happen,” he says.

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

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

He plans to produce some for his friends to tinker with, but he’s just not sure yet about the manufacture, certification, licensing, and most importantly, whether or not the Lego Group will bless or disfavor it. same. Solving it with Lego, or at least “making sure I’m not going to put the weight of Lego on me” is the toughest problem, he says. “There’s a difference between doing something acceptable and being able to fight back if they decide to do their part.” Obviously, he doesn’t plan to sell bricks that literally say “Lego” on their studs – his friday tweet shows a brick dropping the logo.

He also wants to find and install a rechargeable battery before considering manufacturing, since not everyone has late 80s/early 90s Lego electronic boards in a trash can.

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

If you’re reading this, Lego, I sincerely hope you stick with it all the way. When you work with the community, the results are some of the best products you’ve ever created.




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