CLOSE
Original image

Fictional Gadgets Come To Life

Original image

It takes a while for a great idea to go from imagination to actual use in the real world, but it happens a lot! Three fictional gadgets made real were in the news just this past week.

Terminator Vision

435Terminator.png

The Terminator had a computer in his head, with a display readout he could read in his eyes. Several gadgets come close to doing this for humans, so far only while wearing glasses. The latest is the retinal imaging display (RID) from Brother Industries in Japan.

The new RID prototype attaches to a basic set of spectacles and works by focusing light onto the retina, moving it at high speeds to generate images that look like they exist right in front of the user. Too bad the source box is freaking enormous.

Brother plans to launch the product in 2010.

Wrist Communicator

435Tracy.png

Dick Tracy spoke into a two-way wrist radio beginning in 1946. A TV was added later. Starting today, you can order the Van Der Led WM2, which is a wristwatch with the functions you'd expect -clock, calendar, alarm, calculator, plus a cellphone with a touchscreen display, bluetooth, USB data transmission, hands-free speaker, MP3 and MP4 storage, etc etc, and it works with all providers in countries all over the world. Dick Tracy never had those kinds of features! And with a wrist phone, you don't have to fumble through your purse or pockets for a ringing phone, or wonder where you last set it down. The cost: €300 or $471. It goes great with a yellow overcoat.

Suit of Strength

435IronMan.png
Iron Man hits theaters on May 2nd. The character is super strong because of his suit of iron. You should also remember the exoskeleton used in Alien. The real-life version is the work of software engineer Rex Jameson and his robotics company Sarcos. The XOS Exoskeleton moves well and gives the wearer superhuman strength. Sensors in the suit transmit information to a computer and coordinates its moves, so the wearer experiences no lag and no fatigue. The XOS takes up somewhat more room than Iron Man's suit, but is a lot smaller than the contraption in Alien -with as much strength and more features. Jameson is now working under a $10 million US military grant. See a video of the XOS in action.

No word yet on that time machine.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
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
quiz
arrow
Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
Original image
SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES