Thursday, May 31, 2012

LDD Tips and Tricks: Getting Started

I've been playing around with Lego Digital Designer for a little while. I am really enjoying this program as both a 3D related software designer myself and a Lego fan. The program provides a very minimalistic user manual, and there's not a wealth of information on the net for how to use the program, but just by playing around with it, I think I've found a few helpful hints for using LDD. These tips assume you already know a little about LDD. If not, go Download It. You won't be sorry. Now, on to the tips.

1.Use the Extended LDD Theme
LDD provides three "themes": Lego Digital Designer, Lego MINDSTORMS, and Extended Lego Digital Designer. What these themes do is determine how the different pieces are displayed in the brick selector on the left hand side of the screen. The Lego MINDSTORMS shows only bricks available in MINDSTORMS (basically programmable robotic Lego sets). I haven't played with these theme much at all, so that's all I will say about that. The regular LDD theme shows all the bricks available in all of their available color and paint patterns. So if you want a black 2x2 brick, you look through the list of all the colors and find the black one. The Extended LDD theme shows all available bricks by type, and leave it up to you to pick the color, or paint the color later. What this means is with the extended theme, there's far fewer bricks to search through to find the one you are looking for. I found that just by enabling Extended, my computer ran much smoother (there's less work for it to do) and it was easier to find things without having to scroll through a multitude of brick color combinations.

2.Use the Search Bar

You'll find that the more you use LDD, the more quickly you'll be able to navigate to the exact piece you're looking for. However, some pieces are just plain hard to pick out of the huge lineup of available bricks. To aid with this problem, a handy little search bar has been included at the top of the brick panel. As you use pieces, try to recall what they're named so you can go right to them from the search bar. For example, let's say I'm looking for the Yoda minifig head. I can either search through the huge section of minifig accessories until I spot the tiny head, or I can type "yoda" in the search bar and go directly to it. This is a huge time saver.

3.Learn the Camera Control Shortcuts
It's kind of hard to work on a model if you don't know how to view it from the proper angle. LDD provides some camera controls on the screen for rotating the model and zooming in and out, but I don't use those. In fact, I usually turn those off so they don't get in the way. I use the mouse for almost everything related to the camera, and here's what I use:
  • Holding down the right mouse button while moving causes the camera to rotate left/right and up/down around a focal point while maintaining the same distance. In some programs, this is called orbiting.
  • Holding down Shift and the right mouse button while moving causes the model to pan or shift up/down and left/right. This is great for fine adjustments or when you want to look at one end or the other of a long model.
  • The mouse wheel zooms in and out on the current focal point.
  • If you hover over a brick on the model and click the right mouse button, this causes the focal point to shift to that brick. In other words, the camera will switch so that the brick you right clicked on will be in the center of your view. This is my favorite command and it's not even listed in the manual for some odd reason.
4.Practice with Actual Lego Instructions
In my opinion, this is the best possible way to learn how to use LDD, MLCad, or any other Lego based design program. Take an old set of Lego instructions from a set that you own, and try to build that model on your computer. If you don't have any handy, has a huge stash of instructions in pdf format right here. I probably pieced together a dozen or so of the Star Wars and Architecture models using the online pdfs, and doing so gave me a good feel of LDD's capabilities and limitations.

Hopefully you will find these tips useful. Stay tuned and I will be posting additional tips, tricks, and tutorials in the near future.

Friday, May 25, 2012

LDD to POV-RAY - Making Realistic Pictures of Virtual Bricks

I've been experimenting with the best way to show virtual Lego creations when I'm done with them. I love working with Lego Digital Designer, but just taking a screencap of the program doesn't give a very realistic looking result. For instance, here's a simple little vehicle I threw together in LDD.
For working with a virtual model, it looks great. But it just doesn't look like a shiny, new set of Lego bricks. I've seen many CGI renders of virtual sets that looked very close to the real thing, so I set about using my Google-fu skills to find out how it's done. Eventually I found two great tutorials that put me on the right track: One on Bricks'n'Gears and another on Both advocated using a 3D rendering program called POV-ray, a very high quality ray tracing renderer. The only problem is that the process of getting from LDD to POV-Ray gets a little involved. There are some between steps that involve a format called LDraw that is well known in the virtual Lego world. LDraw is an open standard for creating computer generated representations of Lego blocks and assemblies. Since it's an open standard (meaning anyone who wants to can open up the code and see how it works), there have been many programs and projects that have been developed to use LDraw by third party programmers. Also, all of these programs are free, which is something that makes me happy. LDraw is such a popular standard, that the LEGO Group provided a way in LDD to export their proprietary format (meaning no knows how it's put together) into an LDraw file that can be used by these programs.
One of the most popular programs for working with LDraw files is MLCAD, which is short for Mike's LEGO CAD. Like LDD, MLCAD provides access to a huge assortment of official bricks in all the popular colors. It actually has a few advantages over LDD. For one thing, there are more parts available. LDD generally only provides the parts that are still available in sets that are currently sold in stores or are in use, while MLCAD has a lot of older parts (in addition to the new ones) that have been out of production for a while. For instance, remember those old castle bases with the pits in the four corners? MLCAD also allows you to place any brick in any location at any angle you want. In LDD, you can either place a brick on the ground, or it has to attach to another brick. Where this really shines in MLCAD is if you want to place a MiniFig on a smooth surface, like a park bench with smooth plates used as the seating. You can't easily do that in LDD. Despite these advantages, I still prefer to do most of the work in LDD just because I think it has a more intuitive feel (MLCAD has a pretty steep learning curve), and it just feels a little more like you're working with the bricks as you would in real life. That being said, I will definitely be using MLCAD frequently for fine tuning and putting the finishing touches on projects.
Getting back to the original topic of realistic photos, MLCAD also doesn't offer any improvement over LDD in the visual department. That brings us to another LDraw based program, LDView. This program doesn't allow you to move, add, or subtract bricks from an LDraw file, only view it. However, in viewing the file, you can rotate around the model, add light sources to it, and manipulate a few other visual elements. As you can see in the picture, it's an improvement over both LDD and MLCAD, but still not quite the result one would hope for. However, LDView does offer a great feature for getting the project to the final program. Just like LDD features an export to the LDraw format, LDView has an export option for a POV-Ray file.
If you thought MLCAD or any of the other previous programs were intimidating, POV-Ray is a beast. If you look at the POV-Ray screen capture, you're just going to see lines of text and numbers, no fancy model pictures. For a lot of people, looking at a POV-Ray file is no different than looking at green Matrix code, it's indecipherable. However, with a little knowledge of programming and 3D geometry, some of the program makes sense. I won't being trying to explain the program (there are tons of tutorials on the Internet, which is how I learned), other than to give a brief description of what it does. LDView created a POV-Ray file, which is basically a way of describing a model by describing the shapes in the model (size, location, color, what materials they are made of), where they are in 3D space, where the virtual camera is located, where the camera pointing, and what light sources are in the scene. Once all this information is all set, you tell POV-Ray to render the scene. POV-Ray then runs all the information through a host of complicated calculations of how the light sources interact with the camera and the objects, and renders a picture of the scene. This can take from minutes to hours depending on how complicated the scene is, so you can imagine how much computer power this takes (the final scene I made with one light source took 5 minutes on a quad-core computer).
So was the whole process worth it. I think so. It's going to take some more playing around and educating myself about POV-Ray, but with a couple of hours of experimentation, I was pretty happy with the result, especially with the transparent pieces.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cuusoo and the UCS Sandcrawler

Most people in the online Lego fan world is already aware of LEGO Cuusoo (a Japanese word loosely translated as "wish"). For those that aren't, it's a website run by the LEGO group that offers fans and designers to display and promote their own creations. Best of all, if they can get 10,000 supporters for their own design, then they have a chance (after a review period from the folks at LEGO) to have their design put into production as an actual purchaseable set. As if that wasn't cool enough, the designer also gets a small percentage of the net sales paid back to them.
My current favorite is the UCS Sandcrawler created by the user MB_Bricks. The attention to detail is incredible and the pictures he provides are amazing! If you aren't already signed up with Lego Cuusoo, do so and support this project. Here's a video of this monster that MB_Bricks included:

Monday, May 21, 2012

Alma Mater Tower in Lego Form

I've been experimenting with Lego Digital Designer a bit in the past week. While doing so, I received the usual Alumni brochure from my former college, Western Kentucky University. It showed the Guthrie Bell Tower, which was a landmark they had just started building during my senior year, so I missed out on the finished product. Anyway, I figured I could make a recreation of that in brick form. The bottom part was very easy to design, as you can imagine, but rendering the octagonal bell tower itself was kind of tricky. I really like working with this program since I don't have to worry about what brick inventory I have on hand. It's definitely not a substitute for the real thing, but it's a great no-cost way to explore design ideas.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Feminists and Legos

In an earlier post, I talked about LEGO's past and current girl targeted sets and what I thought of them (mostly positive). It looks like not everyone appreciates them as much as my daughter and me, though. In this article, a Brooklyn based feminist group has set up a meeting with LEGO to protest how the new LEGO Friends sets "hypersexualize" girls and set up stereotypical female past times and such. Really? Come on. Toys meant for girls such as dolls have been around for as long as toys have existed, and these people are going after Legos? My only problem with the original girly LEGO sets were that I thought they were too dumbed down. However, these new sets use the same pieces as regular sets and are built in much the same way. The only difference is the LadyFigs and the color scheme. As far as girl toys go (having two daughters, I've been down the pink aisle many times) the LadyFigs are far tamer than other things to be found by little girls (Bratz, anyone?). Yes, they're cute, but they don't have the huge bust line and excessive makeup that are the usual hallmark of modern dolls and figures. As for the feminist groups' argument that the sets themselves reinforce gender roles? Sure there are sets for bedrooms, horse stables, and cute little houses, but there are other sets for vet offices, a bakery, a flying club, an invention workshop, and a design studio. These sets imply that girls can own their own businesses, fly planes, go on adventures, and be vibrant active members of society. I appreciate that the LEGO Group is being gracious in actually meeting with this SPARK group. I think it shows maturity on their part. But my prediction is that in the end, they will listen to their consumers and fans who are snatching the Friends sets off the shelf.


Monday, May 14, 2012

New Lego World's Record

To celebrate Lego's 80th birthday a new world record for the tallest tower of Legos has been built in Seoul, South Korea. It used over 500,000 bricks, was built by 4,000 children, and ended up measuring 105 feet high. This particular record has been broken over 30 different times. Read more about it here: A tower of fun: World's tallest Lego structure unveiled in South Korea to mark toy's 80th birthday

Friday, May 11, 2012

New Lego Release: Sopwith Camel

10226 Sopwith Camel
Lego has released a new model that I find interesting. It's made for the older 14+ set of builders. Actually, it may have been designed for builders older than 50 because I'm not sure how many 14-year-olds are aware of what a Sopwith Camel even is. For those not in the know, the Sopwith Camel was a British war plane used extensively in World War I. In fact, these planes shot down more enemy aircraft than any other Allied fighter of that war.
The model looks nice, as you would typically expect from the good folks at Lego, but what intrigues me about this model is all the string. String isn't anything new in Lego sets. I've had models that had string attached to little cranks or pulleys for anchors and cranes, and of course there was always string in the pirates sets to make the rigging look fancy on the ships. However, the string used on the Sopwith model functions differently than I've seen before. The string is routed around the wings and appears to even trail back inside the fuselage to the tail section. All of this maze of string is attached to the joystick in the cockpit. By moving the joystick around, it tugs on the strings and actually moves the wing and tail flaps in the same manner that it would on an actual Sopwith Camel. Very impressive! I wouldn't be surprised if the wiring diagram is a separate manual for this set.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Virtual Lego Design

A little background on me: I'm a software developer and I work for a company that makes architectural design software. I have always loved the ability to visualize something on a computer before making it a reality. So I've enjoyed using things like AutoCAD, Google Sketchup, and other such modeling software. As it turns out, there are several programs out there that let you do the same thing with virtual Lego bricks, even going so far as to give you access to such interactive information as how Technic pieces fit together and the various different ways that common bricks go together. The one I tend to use the most is the one actually made by the LEGO Group, LEGO Digital Designer. It gives you access to most of their bricks and colors, past and present, and gives you a limited amount of control over minifig faces and paint schemes. It's got several great features for linking virtual pieces together, and being as I'm already used to SketchUp and similar software, it has a shallow learning curve, if you're already used to how Legos fit together. Like any software that models complicated relationships, it has it's share of minor glitches. For instance, it can be hard to pieces to line up correctly if you're working with any kind of angles that aren't in 45 degree increments. There's a handy tool for lining up pieces (like getting a technic brick with an axle through it to line up with another technic brick hole) that is really cool when it works, but the more complicated the model becomes, the less likely that is to happen. However, it's usually easy to work around such glitches and put together giant models of Legos. In some ways, it has all the fun of putting together a Lego set, but with access to as many pieces as you want and some handy little shortcuts. For instance, ever put together a set where the instructions tell you to build the same mini configuration 8+ times? With LDD, you just build it once, then Copy and Paste like you would with any other program. I have been playing around with this program for a little while, and I hope to post a few models in the near future.

So You Need Some Specific Bricks

So let's say you were going through an old Lego set and found out you had a few pieces missing or broken. Or maybe you're working on your own Lego work of art and your current brick inventory just isn't going to meet your artistic needs. What do you do? The first situation happened to me. I wanted to complete a couple of the old sets so my kids could build and play with them like I used to, but a few crucial pieces were missing. After a little research, here's my favorite three online methods for finding those bricks you need.
  • eBay - There are always tons of Legos on eBay. These lots can be anything from individual minifigs, out of print sets in mint condition, bulk lots of assorted Legos, small lots of specific brick pieces, old used sets with instructions, and occasionally some really rare pieces. I would not recommend eBay if you're only looking for one or two very specific pieces to complete a set. You may find those pieces, but it will take some digging and patience. eBay is more beneficial for finding those old sets or just increasing your brick inventory for cheap.
  • LEGO's Pick-a-Brick - Buying directly from the source is a good idea most of the time. When you get bricks from Lego, they will be pristine and they have a pretty good selection. However, they tend to only stock certain colors of their bricks, and older types of Lego pieces won't be available in their store. Also, you can generally get the same bricks for less cost if you don't mind going used. If you're missing a few pieces that are pretty common, and don't want the hassle of dealing with a third party website, Pick-a-Brick is a very nice resource. I bought a few missing pieces this way and was very pleased with how well that all worked out.
  • Bricklink - This is my favorite website for buying Lego pieces. Bricklink is essentially a single website that bundles a bunch of individual little Lego piece stores into one place (similar to eBay or Amazon Marketplace). There are hundreds of users selling thousands of bricks, old and new. This is the best place to go to find those rare or no longer produced Lego bricks for your old sets. I did most of my missing piece replacements via Bricklink. The only drawback is that if you need a bunch of old pieces, you may end up buying from several different sellers since no one store is likely to have ALL the old pieces you need. I ended up buying from 3 separate sellers. So this means you may end up paying more in shipping and increasing the likelyhood of an error either by one of the sellers or just having several packages in the mail at once, which can be a headache. Fortunately, I managed to find all of my pieces in stores that had reasonable shipping prices and all my parts arrived as expected. Bricklink also uses a feedback system very similar to eBay, so be sure to leave feedback for sellers once you receive your items.
My biggest tip for any of these methods is pay attention to your shipping costs, especially on eBay and Bricklink. You may think you scored a great deal, but excessive shipping and handling can cut into your money quickly. Other than that, enjoy shopping!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Nathan Sawaya: Lego Artist

Circle Triangle Square
I've seen a lot of cool things made with Legos. However, if you want to see some amazing works of art using nothing but Lego bricks, give a look. Nathan Sawaya, who runs the site, is a free lance artist and much of his work is done in the medium of Legos. A lot of his work is featured in museums, but he also makes money by doing commissions, such as life size Lego sculptures. It also becomes obvious from looking at some of his work and his Q&A that he has a great sense of humor. His website is certainly worth a visit to see what possibilities exist when playing with Legos. Be sure to look at the Gallery in particular.

Lego Friends and other Girly Sets

Stephanie's Cool Convertible 3183
I recently took my 6-year old daughter, Lena to buy her first Lego set. She had been playing with some of my old sets and had figured out how the instructions and different parts worked. She really enjoyed them, so I figured I'd let her get her very own set. At the store, we looked at all the various sets available in the Town systems, Star Wars (which she doesn't get, yet. Some day she will ;-), Castle, and other various things. She liked some of those, but being the typical princess mindset little girl that she is, she was naturally drawn to new LEGO Friends sets in the pink part of the toy aisle. She picked the Stephanie's Cool Convertible set, and we took it home.

Scala Indies Stable 3124
Being a manly man (and formerly, a typical rough housing boy), I wasn't really sure what to think of a Lego set aimed at girls. Legos seems to mostly appeal to boys (though I know there are a lot of female fans out there) so most Lego sets seem to be designed to get a boy's attention. I was also aware of Lego's past attempts at "girly" sets and systems. The first one was a system called Scala. The figures in these sets looked pretty much like smaller versions of Barbie dolls, and the pieces in these sets were huge. What I mean by that, is that instead of building a wall for a house brick by brick, and adding in little things doors, windows, and wall decorations as you built, each wall was one piece that you plopped down on a big base. Furniture was usually made of several big pieces, as well. This pretty much meant that you could really only build one thing with a Scala set, and that's what was in the instructions. Part of the inherent charm of Legos, in my opinion, is that when you're tired of playing with the built object, you can take it apart and make something else.

Belville Fairy Tales
The next girl system to come out was Belville. Belville also had it's own specialized figures that were more "Legoish" but had more articulated joints, kind of like GI Joe figures. There were large specialized wall pieces and such, but not nearly like Scala. So there was more replayability because the pieces were smaller and could be used with other Lego sets from the Town or other systems. In other words, I think it was a huge improvement and more in line with the old Lego charm.
So that brings us to LEGO Friends. Of the three systems, I like the figures in this one the best. They are small and compact (like the minifigs of most Lego sets) with the same kind of articulation as the regular sets, except that the hands don't twist. But they are also slender and more doll-like in shape. The wigs have tiny holes that accommodate all kinds of a little pink accessories (Lena loved these). The actual Lego pieces used for making the convertible were basically the same kinds you would see in a Town, Star Wars, or other Lego set, except in pink or pastel colors. The bricks also seemed a little shinier to me than my old sets, but I don't know if that's specific to Friends or if it's just been years and years since I've seen a brand new set out of the box. The directions also followed the standard layout and didn't seem dumbed down, like some of the Scala directions I've seen. All in all, I think the LEGO Group has achieved a perfect balance between the usual toys a girl likes to have from the "Pink Aisle" with the charm and replayability that Lego is known for. I've already been getting major hints for which Friends set (City Park Cafe) to get for an upcoming birthday. I'm actually kind of looking forward to it.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Lego in the News

I came across this heartwarming story today on the news feed: Boy Gets His Wish -- A Giant Lego Playhouse. If you aren't familiar with the Make-A-Wish foundation, they are a non-profit group who try their best to provide terminally or seriously ill children with an opportunity to fulfill a wish. Alexander Gintchin, 6, of Colrado (who has a form of soft tissue cancer) wanted a life-size playhouse made of Legos. And bless'em, Make-A-Wish Colorado got it done with around 12,000 bricks. Kudos to you fine people and nice job!

Brickset - All Things Lego Sets

When you're trying to find information about a specific Lego set, the main Lego site can be useful for all the current sets, but it's hard to find information on the old sets (like the Barney set I posted about earlier). That's where Brickset comes in. Brickset is the definitive guide to Lego sets, including sets from as far back as 1966. If you know the set's numerical id (usually a 4 to 5 digit number that appears on the box or instructions) you can just plug that in to the search bar and go right to the Lego set page to get more information, including when it was released, how many pieces, how much it costs on Lego's official shop site, and number of minifigs. From there, each page provides links to additional information such as the actual parts lists, downloadable instructions, and eBay links to current auctions featuring the sets. There's also a nice social element to the site in that you can create lists of Lego sets you own and another list of the sets you want. This is one of my favorite Lego sites and is usually my first stop for information.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Lord of the Rings Legos

The Battle of Helm's Deep 9474
It's a great time to be a Lego enthusiast AND a Tolkien nerd! Several Lego sets based on The Lord of the Rings will be released a little later this year. So far, 7 sets have been announced with the biggest (1368 pieces) being the Battle of Helm's Deep. I'm pretty pumped about these sets as I loved the books and the recent movies. The other sets listed so far are Gandalf Arrives, Shelob Attacks, Uruk-Hai Army, Attack on Weathertop, The Mines of Moria, and The Orc Forge. I'm hoping they'll continue along this line because there are several sets that seem obviously absent to me. Other ideas would be the Balrog, Mt. Doom (the Eye of Sauron), Rivendell, Isengard, The Shire (or maybe just Bag End), and Minas Tirith would be great, though I think it would have to be done on a smaller scale. However, if all we get are those seven sets, that's still pretty cool.
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