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A Beginner's Guide to Alternate Reality Games

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In the credits on a poster for the Steven Spielberg film A.I. was a mysterious job title: "Sentient Machine Therapist - Jeanine Salla." Some curious folks did a web search for this woman and found themselves involved in a murder mystery that included messages hidden in movie trailers, bizarre websites, strange phone numbers, and angry emails from fictional people. It was all part of a revolutionary marketing scheme that has since become known as an Alternate Reality Game, or "ARG." While there are a few ARGs that weren't designed to market a new product, most are conceived to blur the line between our world and the fictional world of the movie, TV show, video game, record album or book that is being promoted. Some ARGs are purely online affairs, but the most exciting ones bleed over into the real world, providing players with a genuine adventure experience.

For example, in the ARG for The Dark Knight, a few lucky players visited participating bakeries and bought cakes that had been reserved for "Robin Banks." Written in the icing was a phone number. When the player dialed the number, a cell phone hidden inside the cake began to ring. As the campaign went on, these players received text messages, recorded voice messages, and were instructed to call numbers to gain further access to the game's many puzzles.

How do I get in the game?

This all sounds like a lot of fun, but getting in on Alternate Reality Games is not always easy. Often they are underground campaigns launched without a press release, adding to the intrigue and making players feel like they're in on a secret. Therefore, one of the first hurdles is finding what are called "trailheads"—websites that lead the player "down the rabbit hole" and into the ARG world.

Like the A.I. game, one of the most common ways to find ARGs is to look closely at promotional materials like posters or TV commercials to find repeated phrases or hidden messages. But it's much easier to let someone else do that and simply monitor sites where fans of the show, band or movie congregate. For example, it was on a Nine Inch Nails forum that a fan first told of finding a USB flash drive in the bathroom at a concert. On the drive was a new track from the band and a message to check out a special web address.

What if I get stuck?

Once you've found a trail, the game producers, or "puppetmasters," present puzzles that you will have to solve to reach the next level of the game. But figuring out each step is where things really start to get difficult. If you get stuck, you'll be happy to know there are websites dedicated to ARGs, including argn.com, despoiler.org, wikibruce.com, and unforum.net, where player groups, or "collective detectives," gather to hash out the latest riddles. This brings a wide variety of skills together to solve a common problem, forcing game producers to be more inventive in creating complex, exciting, and engaging puzzles.

What are some games going on right now?

1. topsecretconspiracy.com

If you head over to topsecretconspiracy.com, you'll see poorly made videos of aliens starting California wildfires, fake alien coins created by the U.S. Mint and video from a science fiction convention where fans are interviewed about the government's alien conspiracy. That all sounds like pretty typical stuff for a UFO site, right? But look closely at the paperbacks for sale at this sci-fi convention and you'll notice that the some of the book covers feature the stars of the upcoming animated film Monsters vs. Aliens. Did I mention that the website is owned by Pacific Data Images, which is part of Dreamworks Animation, the company behind the film?

2. The 39 Clues
A new ARG has emerged that's tied to a kids' book series, The 39 Clues. The books, written by some of the top names in young adult literature, include trading cards with unique identification numbers that readers can enter into an accompanying website and gain valuable clues to solve the mystery plot at the center of the 10-book series. To help young sleuths gather clues, additional trading cards are sold separately. With a $10,000 prize going to the first person to solve the mystery, even non-readers might pick up a book or two, which is never a bad thing.

3. Stop the International
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If you're interested in grand theatricals, Stop the International is a tie-in game for an upcoming film starring Clive Owen. Players can go to the website and enter the serial number of any paper money in their pockets to learn the bill's sordid history in the hands of international drug dealers and money launderers. But by following clues on the site, some players have already met with real people in public places like the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, where the mysterious contact tells them the hidden location of special $2 bills whose serial numbers lead to a special section of the website. It's rumored the game is being run by 42 Entertainment, the puppetmasters behind many influential ARGs (including the Dark Knight game), so if you want to get in on a major ARG, this might be the one.

4. Coraline
As mentioned before, most ARGs are released with barely a whisper. Other times, though, they'll start with a bang. Such is the case with an ARG surrounding the soon-to-be-released film Coraline. The stop-motion film from the people who brought you The Nightmare Before Christmas is coming to theaters this February, but the marketing campaign recently began with the delivery of gorgeous handmade boxes to various people around the world. Inside each box are items that look like they belong in the world of the haunting film, as well as an old fashioned key with a small note attached by a string. By visiting the movie's official website and typing in the keyphrase written on the note, players are able to see behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the film. Fifty of these boxes are being sent out and the passwords are being collected at various ARG sites, most notably Evil Buttons.

5. Traces of Hope
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For the most part, ARGs are all fun and games, but "Traces of Hope" is an ARG designed by the British Red Cross that is hoping to change that. While the game is fun, it's also meant to shed some light on the real-life struggles of those in war-torn regions of the world. You play the role of humanitarian Alan Hackston as he attempts to help Joseph—a survivor of war in Northern Uganda who is wandering around a Red Cross refugee camp in search of his mother. He has been given a satellite phone that you can use to track his location around the camp and direct him to various Red Cross services. Many interactions with Joseph are handled via an instant messenger feature, but you will also receive emails and video messages, and you can visit websites like LinkedIn and Flickr to gain additional information to aid him in his quest. It's a game with a message and might very well be the next stage in the evolution of the ARG.

6. StreetWars
If the notion of hidden messages on movie posters and cell phones planted in cakes is all just a little too unrealistic for you, StreetWars is a slightly different take on ARGs. Rather than play the game online, it gives people the chance to live out their wildest dreams as hired assassins stalking their prey through the streets of New York, London, San Franciso, and a handful of other cities worldwide. Once a person has joined the game they are given an envelope containing a photo and contact information for their target. From there, the assassins begin the hunt, "killing" one another with a blast from water pistols, usually when the target least expects it. As hitmen make their kills, they take on the intended targets of their victims, narrowing down the playing field until only one assassin remains. And that's when the big guns come in "“ the masterminds of the StreetWars game come to town and attempt to take out the last man standing. The next game starts in June.
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While ARGs are undoubtedly an exciting new tool in a marketing company's bag o' tricks, many question if the advertising message is really getting through to the consumer, or if this is all just a waste of resources that could better be used on other, more effective media outlets. Only time will tell the viability of ARGs. But for now, get involved and have some fun playing in another world for a little while.

Rob Lammle is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com. You can read more of his work on his own site, spacemonkeyx.com.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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