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Inside Monsanto's House of the Future, 1957

In 1957, Monsanto demonstrated its vision for future housing, emphasizing one word: plastics. Its House of the Future was displayed at Disneyland from 1957 through 1967, and it envisioned a future home from the then-distant future of 1986. The house featured lavish conveniences including a microwave oven, ultrasonic dishwasher (for plastic dishes, of course), "cold zones" to replace refrigerators and freezers (with a special zone for irradiated foods), and dimmable ceiling lights -- and that's just the kitchen.

While the House of the Future was a little silly around its plastic edges, a lot of its vision was actually correct. We do indeed use microwaves, we have lots of plasticware and even plastic furniture (hello IKEA), and Monsanto's vision of easy cleanup flooring is very realistic (though plastic may not be the most common material, Monsanto's heart was in the right place). Some details like electric toothbrushes and intercom/security systems ring true. The exterior architecture of the house was slightly Jetsons, but frankly, I've seen condos with very similar design cues. The Danish Modern living room looks thoroughly modern-retro to me (although it lacks art on the walls). Check out these videos and see what 1957 thought 1986 would look like. How'd they do?

One big mistake in its vision that stands out to me is the use of height adjustment on virtually everything (right down the children's sink) -- everything in the house uses tracks to hide when not in use. While we have a little of that today, it isn't exactly pervasive; it just looks cool in a demo. The other major difference is Monsanto's attempt to sell plastic as a classy material for everything. On the whole, people of the future (meaning us) don't see plastic as classy, and indeed have gone retro on what we think denotes quality -- we're looking for steel, wood, and even materials like cork that had no place in the House of the Future. On the flip side, we seem just fine with buying plastic stuff (even pretty stylish plastic) if it's a bargain (again, IKEA and even Target come to mind here).

In a little side-trivia, the House of the Future was very hard to demolish. Apparently a wrecking ball bounced right off the shell (plastics!) so the house had to be ripped to pieces with saws, taking weeks. You can see a little more video of the house, including a nice discussion in the comments, in What Disneyland Looked Like in 1957.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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!

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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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