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Creatively Speaking: Motionbox.com

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One of the great things about doing this interview series for you all, is that I get to meet all kinds of interesting people busy creating all kinds of interesting Web sites, books, music, etc.

Today, I'm going to turn you all on to my new, favorite video sharing and video storage site, Motionbox.com, which, by my way of thinking, blows the competition away. Started by Chris O'Brien, Andrew Wason and Josh Grotstein, Motionbox allows you to upload/store as many gigs of video as you want, and stream it, as well. (Vimeo and YouTube only let you upload up to 1GB and their HD quality pales by comparison.)

If you saw the little mash-up/film I made and posted a couple weeks ago, that was hosted by Motionbox. (You can find it reposted at the end of the interview below.)

And now, on with the interview with Motionbox CEO Josh Grotstein.

DI: When did you first decide you wanted to create a movie-related site and where did the original idea come from?

JG: Motionbox co-founders Chris O'Brien and Andrew Wason are the true visionaries behind Motionbox. They met at Bellcore (a Bell Labs spinoff), and eventually went on to create two pioneering companies in the online video space: Softcom (in the 90's) and Motionbox (in 2005). Along with co-founders Douglas Warshaw and Jenn Houser, Chris and Andrew realized that broadband penetration and processing power increases - along with what's come to be called cloud computing initiatives - paved the way for a new type of service in which everyday home video users could upload, manipulate and edit, store, and share all of their personal digital video "memories" online. The desktop, while by no means dead, was no longer a limiting factor in the personal video value chain.

DI: How are you guys different from YouTube or Vimeo?

JG: Just as the Internet as a whole did back in 1994-7, video on the web is experiencing its "Big Bang" moment, in which a huge explosion is followed by the creation of differentiated galaxies and stars. YouTube, Blip, Veoh, Vimeo, Hulu, etc. are stars of different sizes and shapes and intensities existing in the Media Galaxy. Motionbox is forming in the newer Personal Video Galaxy.

Thought of from a more down-to-earth perspective, Motionbox is to personal videos what Shutterfly is to personal photos. We provide a very safe, high quality, and easy-to-use platform to upload, edit, store, and share your video digital memories. We are not targeted at professional or semi-professional videographers (however, many of them are attracted to us due to our high quality service offering), but rather to the "chief memory officers" of the family who don't want to learn what AVCHD means, much less learn how to properly transcode files rendered using that format.

Motionbox's real asset is that we have the best HD format support out there, along with spectacular HD quality. AVCHD, which is a common format taken by most HD camcorders, has been really hard to deal with until now. We allot people to simply upload their AVCHD files with no need to convert them first. The results are pretty amazing.

DI: One of your biggest draws, of course, is that you advertise unlimited storage space and users can upload files of any size. Where on earth are you storing all this data? I'm picturing a warehouse-size server.

JG: We use a mixture of cloud and "internal" storage, and our internal storage is hosted at network operating centers. Our "mixed" architecture allows us to achieve an appropriate trade-off between high availability and cost efficiency. This in turn allows us to offer a differentiated service particularly to our premium customers.

DI: When a user uploads a video, what's the conversion process? What happens on your end during the optimization process before we see it?

JG: One of the great strengths of Motionbox is our technological ubiquity. We support more video formats than any other online video service, including AVCHD, which is popular on many HD camcorders. The fact that we support these formats makes it extremely simple for all types of users to upload to the service. As a consequence, users don't have to pre-transcode any of their files before working with us (which is not the case with most other services, especially for the newer HD formats).

We ingest the video source code in its entirety and, in the case of our premium members, store 2 copies of that source code for as long as a person remains a member. At that point, we transcode the video (again, regardless of its source origin) to a "raw", expanded format which then gets immediately re-transcoded into several different formats depending on the user. In the case of the premium user, transcoding goes automatically into our "standard definition" format until the user chooses to play a high definition version of the video, at which point it's also transcoded into HD. The user can also select to have the file transcoded over to download formats useable on devices like the iPod. Net, net --we end up storing multiple copies of each video file.

DI: What about those huge HD files? How do you plan on handling that as more and more HD consumer cams and flips hit the market?

JG: We're big fans of HD, and truly believe that the Motionbox service shines most brightly (perhaps another allusion to the astronomy analogy) when we're handling HD content.

That said, as you point out, HD is not without its liabilities, including increased storage costs and protracted upload and encoding time. Fortunately, the economics of our "freemium" subscription trial model allows us to offer a very robust HD product to our premium users, and a "taste" of HD to our free users. Also fortunately, the cost of storage is dropping as fast as upload speeds are increasing. So, we feel comfortable that we can meet consumer demand without sacrificing on our profitability margins.

DI: How far away are you guys from allowing users to manipulate/alter the motionbox player?

JG:
It's something a number of users have asked for, especially many of the more "pro" oriented small businesses and hobbyists using Motionbox. We're looking at a number of options here, including player color customization, and more control over the end screen, etc. We hope to have a solution later this year.

DI: What aspect of the site are you most proud of?

JG: There are a lot of different aspects of the site that are particularly noteworthy, including our very easy-to-use filmstrip mixing functionality, our large format HD player, and our various download formats. However, one of our most interesting recent developments has nothing to do with the "site" itself, but is rather a separate express uploader application running on Adobe Air. (www.motionbox.com/install/mxu) What's so cool about this app is that it allows users to queue many videos to be uploaded in the background without any need to monitor their progress or worry about changes to computer states. For example, if the connection to the Internet breaks, your upload picks up from where it left off and you don't have to start uploading all over again, which can be a particularly annoying issue when one is uploading large HD files. This "little" application enables us to overcome most of the effect of relatively slow ISP upload speeds.

DI: How many premium account holders do you have? How many free accounts?

JG: We don't release financial-related information on the company. However, I can say that we have over 1.5 million registered users and that this represents 6x growth over the past 6 months.

DI: What happens if someone doesn't re-up for a second or third year subscription? Do they have a way of getting their data off your server?

JG: Yes. One of the reasons we hold on to the source file for our premium users is precisely so that the user will be able to re-download that file at a later date should they decide to move their videos elsewhere. Obviously, we'd prefer that they stay with Motionbox, but we believe that if we can't continue to offer them a valuable enough business proposition then we shouldn't be in a position to hold their videos hostage. This is one of the factors that ensures we'll continue to innovate and offer added value to our current users over the years to come.

DI: What's up next for you guys?

JG: We will be announcing some very important developments in the coming months, both from a partnership and a product development standpoint. While I can't say much about either right now, I will say that in re: the latter, there is an extremely robust technology engine riding underneath the current Motionbox platform which has yet to be fully "turned on" as it were. Once we enable some of the application hooks into this engine, you'll begin to see some very exciting and novel video-enabled products emerge.


Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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