Spore: The Buzz Begins

I've wanted to play Will Wright's next game, Spore, for years. I first wrote about Spore way back in February 2007, proudly and naively stating that "our wait will soon be over." Well, I was right if by "soon" I meant "in another year and a half." Spore has been in development since 2000, and it finally has a reliable release date: September 7, 2008. Let's hope the wait has been worth it.

Spore is a video game unlike any other. Following in the tradition of Wright's SimCity and The Sims, it's a "God Game" in which the player controls the lives of characters in a virtual world. But this time, you're not a city planner or operating a doll house -- you're literally playing God as an intelligent designer, creating and guiding an organism through stages of evolution and social progress. What's more, the technology behind the game breaks new ground, using generative mathematical processes to animate user creations and even create music on the fly. Neat stuff, this.

In the run-up to Spore's release, EA has released the Spore Creature Creator (including a free version). Using the Creature Creator, you can play with Spore's creator development environment to create your own beings. These creatures will then populate the actual Spore game world when the game ships (Spore downloads user-generated content in the background, populating worlds with creatures created by other users). Check out the free trial edition for a taste of the action; there's also a $10 full version available for purchase (the full version unlocks lots of additional creature parts, like different eyes, arms, legs, and so on).

Here's a demo of the Spore Creature Creator, showing exactly how it works:

There are various contests afoot related to the Creature Creator. There's a dance competition in which you capture video of your creature busting a move (the prize is a trip to the Smithsonian Institute!), and a celebrity Spore contest called SporeVote, in which fans vote on their favorite Spore creatures created by celebrities. (Note: the celebrities are a weird grab bag including MC Hammer, Peaches, Stan Lee, Margaret Cho, David Lynch, Carlos Santana, and _floss friend Mo Rocca.)

So get your preorder in and spend the next few months drooling over YouTube videos (I recommend The Science Behind Spore as a good starting place, then check out the videos linked here for deep catalog nerd stuff).

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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