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Adventures in Advertising

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"Picture a box. Not just any box "“ a huge box. A performance art piece, dropped in Central Park and Trafalgar Square and Fisherman's Wharf. People from all over the world will step inside the box. Then they'll explain to a live web camera why their current bank keeps them 'in a box' by offering cookie-cutter products and services. People can tune in online. It will be a viral sensation."

Welcome to advertising in the 21st century.

That's an actual story from an actual meeting I was lucky enough to attend in 2004. This kind of nonsense, where a terrible idea was crowned "viral" by virtue of not being a TV commercial, makes the good ideas shine even brighter.  But "non-traditional" isn't always a euphemism for "bad."

Starwood is opening a new line of loft-style hotels, called aloft. You shouldn't care and probably don't. But rather than just churn out press releases heralding the arrival of more rooms for rent, Starwood decided to simultaneously build a virtual replica in Second Life to generate interest. They piqued mine.

You might be wondering what Second Life is. Sara Van Gorden will explain. She's a developer for The Electric Sheep Company, the folks developing Virtual Aloft.

"Second Life (or 'SL' for short) is, precisely, a virtual world, where you can create literally anything you can imagine. SL has a built-in 3D modeling engine, the ability to upload textures to apply to your 3D creations, a scripting language heavily based on C++ to make your creations functional...and is unique in the fact that the intellectual property rights to your creations are yours and yours alone, not the game company's."

Today Second Life has 280,000 active residents. If you're one of them, you can wander over to see progress on aloft. If you're not, you can follow along via the Virtual Aloft blog.

Starwood has plenty of company in Second Life. You can buy your digital self digital t-shirts at American Apparel. Suzanne Vega recently performed. And the avatar version of Nextel co-founder/Virginia Governor/likely 2008 Presidential candiate Mark Warner stopped by to chat with voters.

As for the performance art box/bank ad, that never materialized. As a result, banks continue to offer cookie-cutter products and services, and the disenchanted banking public has no outlet for their frustration. The man behind the box idea was fired about a month later.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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