15 More Kickstarter Projects We Love

Last month, I gathered up 15 of the best flossy projects on Kickstarter--projects our readers would love, ones that were educational yet playful. Since that posting, nine of the 15 projects were successfully funded. (Four were unsuccessful in raising the desired funds, and two are still active at the time of this writing.) This month, I have another 15 flossy projects to share with you, arranged according to how much time remains on each project. If any of them strike your fancy, just follow the widgets over to Kickstarter to place a pledge (starting from just $1).

Pinball Arcade: Star Trek the Next Generation

The Goal: Purchase the licensing rights for the original Star Trek: The Next Generation pinball table designed by Steve Ritchie in order to create a digital version of the game

Funds Needed: $45,000

Favorite Reward: Copy of the game for the platform of your choice (iOS, Android, Xbox 360, PS3, computer, etc.) for $10+ pledges

Splurge Reward: Pledge $10,000+, and the FarSight team will travel to the location of your choosing to set up and host a virtual pinball tournament for you & your friends, complete with prizes
"The Characternity": Entire Cartoon Universe

The Goal: Complete a giant drawing of 2,500+ characters from cartoons and pop culture at large and then produce prints

Funds Needed: $4,500

Favorite Reward: For just $1+, your (broadly recognizable) character suggestion will be included in the Characternity, and you'll receive a .PNG image of the character in the piece

Splurge Reward: One big spender can receive the original black & white line drawing of the Characternity for a pledge of $9,500+
Sprout: A Pencil with a Seed

The Goal: To produce a line of high-quality pencils that can be planted when they're too short to use

Funds Needed: $25,000

Favorite Reward: For $10+, receive the 3 Sprout combo pack of 1 Basil, 1 Cherry Tomato, and 1 Marigold pencil

Splurge Reward: For $1,000+, the team will turn any object of your choice into a plantable item, complete with a video of the event; you'll also receive their herb variety pack
Tinkermite Tablet

The Goal: Produce a classic style wooden children's puzzle that teaches kids about technology

Funds Needed: $15,000

Favorite Reward: The Tinkermite Tablet itself is yours for a pledge of $50+

Splurge Reward: $350+ backers will receive 4 Tinkermite Tablets, a set of application magnets, 4 T-shirts, and stickers
Artifact: Interactive Access

The Goal: Develop and build a workflow prototype and acquire equipment to enable the Grand Rapids Public Museum to build a publicly accessible database of high-resolution images of more than 250,000 artifacts

Funds Needed: $2,500

Favorite Reward: A set of 3 limited edition 8"x10" photographic prints of the artifacts for a pledge of $50+

Splurge Reward: For a pledge of $500+, a copy of the book of artifact photos with a signed book plate and patron acknowledgement in the book, as well as an 11"x17" print of an artifact of your choice (from 100), signed by the photographer
SmartThings: Make Your World Smarter

The Goal: Develop a system, apps, and "SmartThings" to make everyday physical objects smarter, so users can monitor, automate, and control the objects in their lives -- for example, using the Weather Watcher SmartApp to delay sprinklers when rain is expected

Funds Needed: $250,000

Favorite Reward: For pledges of $174+, get a SmartThings Hub plus 3 Things (fobs, sensors, outlets, etc.) as well as free service -- forever. (This is the lowest-price package still available; the $99 and $149 packages have sold out.)

Splurge Reward: If you're an "Enthusiast" with a pledge of $500 or more, you'll get a SmartThings Hub, 10 Things (fobs, sensors, outlets, etc.), no monthly fees, and the opportunity to vote on the next things they'll create. (If you really want to splurge, with a pledge of $10k or more, you'll become a "Partner," and the creators will discuss those benefits on a case-by-case basis.)
Steampunk ABC Book

The Goal: Publish a hardcover alphabet book featuring steampunk features, historical aspects, and archetypes of the "future past"

Funds Needed: $9,000

Favorite Reward: For $20+, receive a hard copy of the book, a PDF of the finished book with your name listed as a supporter, and a digital wallpaper featuring the design on the book's end papers

Splurge Reward: At the "Dorian Gray" level of $750+ pledges (limited to 5), receive an 11"x14" watercolor portrait of yourself (and your significant other, if desired) in a steampunk outfit, as well as the end paper design digital wallpaper, a PDF copy of the book listing you as a supporter, a Kickstarter-exclusive book plate, an autographed harcover copy of the book, and a signed 11"x14" archival print of an illustration of your choice from the book
Historical Figures Typographic Poster Series

The Goal: Creating a series of typographic portraits of popular icons from history, using the quotes and musings that shaped their lives

Funds Needed: $5,000

Favorite Reward: If you only have $1 to spare, you'll still get digital wallpapers (for all your devices -- computers, phones, tablets) of all 4 posters

Splurge Reward: For a pledge of $120+, you'll receive all 4 of the 18"x24" posters in the series, signed and numbered by the creator
AnthroCine: Archival Film Digitizing System

The Goal: Develop AnthroCine, an archival film digitizer to expedite high quality digitization of archival film, and a system in which the AnthroCine systems would be temporarily deployed to archives/libraries, instead of having to be purchased by each individual organization

Funds Needed: $300,000

Favorite Reward: A $25+ pledge receives digital access to Advanced Film Capture's scanned public domain (and privately held, when possible) video, along with a personalized certificate of appreciation and a permanent listing on their website as a supporter

Splurge Reward: Up to 25 big spenders who pledge $10,000+ will be made lifetime members of AFC's Board of Advisors, which will meet quarterly; the board will receive updates, guide the organization, be able to recommend specific archives/films, and have other business input. A backer at this level will also have the option of sending an undergraduate/graduate student of their choice to an internship at AFC. (You can also choose to receive any/all of the other rewards being offered.)

BERO: A Bluetooth-Controlled Open Source Robot

The Goal: Produce and distribute BERO, a smartphone companion robot that can be fully controlled via a smartphone interface, as well as function as a Bluetooth speaker, dance to music, read and react to Twitter feeds, and more

Funds Needed: $38,900

Favorite Reward: For $129+ pledges, receive the BERO Basshead, a 4-inch BERO that lights up to music with 5 gearbox motors for movement, and a mention on the webiste

Splurge Reward: For a pledge of $7,850+ (limited to 2 backers only), you will be flown (economy) to Hong Kong from any "normal" international airport, receive accommodation for 3 nights, and tour the factory and watch BERO be made. You'll also receive some "top-secret" development updates and star in a making-of video.
GLYPHiTS: Magnetic Pictures with Linguistic Potential

The Goal: Develop a set of magnets featuring hand-drawn images and letters that can be used to create messages and puzzles

Funds Needed: $3,000

Favorite Reward: $15+ pledges net you a complete set of GLYPHiTS, plus a Kickstarter-exclusive magnet, shipped in time for the holiday season

Splurge Reward: If you pledge $500+, you'll receive a set of 50 personalized GLYPHiTS, as well as one regular 150-piece set of GLYPHiTS and the Kickstarter-exclusive magnet
Borders of the World Jewelry

The Goal: Produce a line of jewelry inspired by and featuring world borders

Funds Needed: $45,000

Favorite Reward: For $50+, receive a sterling silver Cotton Multi-Cord Bracelet, Knotted Double Strand Bracelet, or Knotted Medallion Necklace, presumably featuring the border of your choice

Splurge Reward: With a $1,000+ pledge, you'll receive an American Apparel T-shirt with the Borderline logo, a sterling silver Horseshoe Key Ring (presumably featuring the border of your choice), and a pair of gold Cufflinks or a Braided Leather Wrap bracelet with the gold map of your choice
Public Lab DIY Spectrometry Kit

The Goal: Collect data to build a Wikipedia-style library of open source spectra, as well as to refine and improve sample collection and analysis techniques

Funds Needed: $10,000

Favorite Reward: Backers pledging $35+ receive an assemble-it-yourself desktop USB spectrometry kit, with a 400-900 nanometer range and a 3-10 nm resolution, so you can contribute to the spectra library

Splurge Reward: The $400+ pledge package includes all 4 spectrometers -- countertop, desktop, mobile, and papercraft -- so you can contribute to the spectra library from anywhere
Shakespeare-Themed Oil Paintings

The Goal: Create 10 new oil paintings inspired by Shakespeare's plays, make giclee prints of those paintings, and hold an exhibit of the paintings in the summer of 2013

Funds Needed: $7,000

Favorite Reward: A $15+ pledge nets you two 4"x6" prints -- "Farewell, Farewell! One Kiss: Romeo and Juliet" and "Brides and Bridegrooms All: As You Like It" -- as well as a digital slideshow of all the paintings set to music

Splurge Reward: For a $10,000+ pledge, the artist, Richard Lance Russell, will fly to you (within the USA) and paint your portrait on a canvas up to 20"x30"
Onrust: Replica 17th-Century Dutch Ship

The Goal: Complete the interior design and construction of the museum and classroom space in the Onrust, an authentic replica of the first Dutch ship built in America, which was originally built in 1614

Funds Needed: $5,000

Favorite Reward: For a pledge of $50+, receive a hand-made spinning top made out of 400-year-old White Oak used to build the ship, as well as an 8"x10" color photo of the ship

Splurge Reward: Pledge $1,000+ to take an excursion on the Onrust for you and another person. You'll also receive a framed 11"x17" limited edition etching of the Onrust, your name on a donor plaque on the ship, a hand-made spinning top made from 400-year-old White Oak used to build the ship, and an 8"x10" color photo of the Onrust. (If you're one of the first 10 to pledge $1,000+, you'll also receive a pen made from the 400-year-old White Oak.)
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
Original image
A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]