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Chat Via Bottled Messages: Distant Shore for iPhone

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Distant Shore ($0.99, iPhone/iPod Touch) is a profoundly weird application. Is it a game? Is it a chat client? Is it a kind of wish-maker? Well, it's all of these. Let me explain.

Last fall, budding iPhone development powerhouse The Blimp Pilots released Koi Pond, a pond simulator with interactive digital fish. Unexpectedly, it shot to the number 1 spot on the iTunes App Store. A pond simulator as the top iPhone app? Indeed. It was one heck of a pond simulator -- with realistic, soothing water ripples, beautifully animated koi, great sound, and fun features like "finger nibbling" (the fish apparently like to nibble fingers.)

Now, The Blimp Pilots are back with Distant Shore, a kind of "slow chat" application in which you walk along an endless 3D-rendered beach, picking up bottles and reading the messages inside. If you like a message, you can reply to its anonymous sender, creating a little chat thread. You can launch your own messages into the sea, and other people will find them on their own shores. And that's it. You just walk along this beach, picking up and sending messages in bottles.

Here are a few screenshots of walking along the beach:

Your first mission is to look for shells, which appear randomly on the beach. Once you've found five shells, you're granted a fresh bottle which you can use to throw a new message into the ocean. Occasionally you'll run across a bottle with a message in it. You can also find your way to a mailbox which contains replies to your messages. It's all very simple -- you just tap to talk around, tap to pick something up, tap to write a message, and so on. Your bottles and messages are stored in an inventory so you can carry on a bunch of different chats at once.

The messages themselves are of varying quality, of course, as they come from other users around the world. In my testing, I came across people who seemed genuinely interested in reaching out via message-in-a-bottle chat, though it can be hard to think of what to say when you're chatting with a completely anonymous person. Here are some examples of chat messages I received -- on the left is the first message that washed up on my shore; on the right is a chat thread with someone who asked me my age.

Distant Shore chat messages

So there you have it. A strangely peaceful, hard to describe iPhone app. If you're curious what anonymous people have to say, give it a shot -- it only costs one dollar. To buy: Distant Shore ($0.99, iPhone/iPod Touch with wifi), or learn more here (including a gameplay video).

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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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