Lego computer science: pixel pictures

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

It is now after Christmas. You are stuffed full of turkey, and the floor is covered with lego. It must be time to get back to having some computer science fun, but could the lego help? As we will see you can explore digital images, cryptography, steganography, data compression, models of computing, machine learning and more with lego (and all without getting an expensive robot set which is the more obvious way to learn computer science with lego though you do need lots of lego). Actually you could also do it all with other things that were in your stocking like a bead necklace making set and probably with all that chocolate, too.

First we are going to look at understanding digital images using lego (or beads or …)

Raster images

Digital images come in two types: raster (or bitmap) images and vector images. They are different kinds of image representation. Lego is good for experimenting with the former through pixel puzzles. The idea is to make mosaic-like pictures out of a grid of small coloured lego. Lego have recently introduced a whole line of sets called Lego Art should you want to buy rather amazing versions of this idea, and you can buy an “Art Project” set that gives you all the bits you need to make your own raster images. You can (in theory at least) make it from bits and pieces of normal lego too. You do need quite a lot though.

Raster images are the basic kind of digital image as used by digital cameras. A digital image is split into a regular grid of small squares, called pixels. Each pixel is a different colour.

To do it yourself with normal lego you need, for starters, to collect lots of the small circle or square pieces of different colours. You then need a base to put them on. Either use a flat plate piece if you have one or make a square base of lego pieces that is 16 by 16. Then, filling the base completely with coloured pieces to make a mosaic-like picture. That is all a digital image really is at heart. Each piece of lego is a pixel. Computer images just have very tiny pieces, so tiny that they all merge together.

Here is one of our designs of a ladybird.

A pixel image of a ladybird

The more small squares you have to make the picture, the higher the resolution of the image With only 16 x 16 pixels we have a low resolution image. If you only have enough lego for an 8×8 picture then you have lower resolution images. If you are lucky enough to have a vast supply of lego then you will be able to make higher resolution, so more accurate looking images.

Lego-by-numbers

Computers do not actually store colours (or lego for that matter). Everything is just numbers. So the image is stored in the computer as a grid of numbers. It is only when the image is displayed it is converted to actual colours. How does that work. Well you first of all need a key that maps colours to numbers: 0 for black, 1 for red and so on. The number of colours you have is called the colour depth – the more numbers and linked colours in your key, the higher the colour depth. So the more different coloured lego pieces you were able to collect the larger your colour depth can be. Then you write the numbers out on squared paper with each number corresponding to the colour at that point in your picture. Below is a version for our ladybird…

The number version of our ladybird picture

Now if you know this is a 16×16 picture then you can write it out (so store it) as just a list of numbers, listed one row after another instead: [5,5,4,4,…5,5,0,4,…4,4,7,2] rather than bothering with squared paper. To be really clear you could even make the first two numbers the size of the grid: [16,16,5,5,4,4,…5,5,0,4,…4,4,7,2]

That along with the key is enough to recreate the picture which has to be either agreed in advance or sent as part of the list of numbers.

You can store that list of numbers and then rebuild the picture anytime you wish. That is all computers are doing when they store images where the file storing the numbers is called an image file.

A computer display (or camera display or digital tv for that matter) is just doing the equivalent of building a lego picture from the list of numbers every time it displays an image, or changes an old one for something new. Computers are very fast at doing this and the speed they do so is called the frame rate – how many new pictures or frames they can show every second. If a computer has a frame rate of 50 frames per second, then it as though it can do the equivalent of make a new lego image from scratch 50 times every second! Of course it is a bit easier for a computer as it is just sending instructions to a display to change the colour shown in each pixels position rather than actually putting coloured lego bricks in place.

Sharing Images

Better still you can give that list of numbers to a friend and they will be able to rebuild the picture from their own lego (assuming they have enough lego of the right colours of course). Having shared your list of numbers, you have just done the equivalent of sending an image over the internet from one computer to another. That is all that is happening when images are shared, one computer sends the list of numbers to another computer, allowing it to recreate a copy of the original. You of course still have your original, so have not given up any lego.

So lego can help you understand simple raster computer images, but there is lots more you can learn about computer science with simple lego bricks as we will see…


Find more about Lego Art at lego.com.

Find more pixel puzzles (no lego needed, just coloured pens or spreadsheets) at https://teachinglondoncomputing.org/pixel-puzzles/


This post was funded by UKRI, through grant EP/K040251/2 held by Professor Ursula Martin, and forms part of a broader project on the development and impact of computing.

Lego Computer Science

Part of a series featuring featuring pixel puzzles,
compression algorithms, number representation,
gray code, binaryand computation.