Thursday, May 6, 2010

LEGO is the most tech-savvy 78-year-old in the world

The technological envelope isn't supposed to be pushed by 78-year-olds. When I'm 78, I intend to be kicking back in a recliner with the volume up too loud on my television as I watch the Chicago Cubs still searching for that elusive World Series win. My biggest technological achievement will be keeping the remote from falling into the cushions.

But The LEGO Group has more ambition -- the classic toy company is reinventing itself online and through a series of new in-store displays that are designed to blow the collective minds of seven and eight-year-olds -- not an easy task for a generation that is getting harder and harder to impress.

The LEGO Digital Box is the latest example of augmented reality, wherein a digital image is superimposed over a picture captured by a webcam and projected onto a screen. So as a customer holds up a boxed set of LEGO bricks, an animated digital image of that set appears over the box. For instance a LEGO carnival comes to life when held up to the camera -- the carousel spins and the figures included move around the top of the box on the screen.

And this summer, LEGO will introduce LEGO Universe - a massive multiplayer online roleplaying game, where your avatar (digital representative) is a minifigure (LEGO man/woman) that you steer through a world constructed of LEGO elements. In this world, you can build virtually whatever you want. And at some point, I have to believe that LEGO will offer you an in-game option to download the house you designed and purchase it as a set that can be shipped to your home in real life.

It's a lot to ask for a company that started with a product line of handcrafted wooden toys. But perhaps that is why LEGO is currently so flexible -- they're relatively new to the world of electronics. Unlike a technology company that explodes on the scene, experiences massive growth, and then becomes entrenched and unable to adjust to a new VC-funded competitor - LEGO is basically an electronics start-up. Mindstorms, the company's wildly successful robotics line, is only 12 years old and they only started getting serious about licensed video games in the past five years. That means they have a grace period of about two decades before they freak out that someone has left the first animatronics minifig prototype in a mall food court.

In addition to writing a new chapter in their history, LEGO might just be writing the story for the inevitable remake of The Graduate. So in five years, 73-year-old Dustin Hoffman -- could learn a new lesson about what to do after graduation.

There's a great future for the plastics company -- it's just not entirely in plastics.

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