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Zubbles

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Soap bubbles are fun. If you have ever watched a baby play with blown bubbles for the first time, or seen a dog snap at them, or given a child a bubble bath, then you know how magical they can be. How could you possibly improve on such a simple yet fascinating amusement? Tim Kehoe though it would be nice if they were colored. Kehoe is a toy inventor, and colored bubbles became his life's work. Going into the project, he didn't know it would take 15 years and $3 million to complete. You'd think it would be a simple matter of adding dye to the soap mixture, but there were problems.

Standard food coloring or dyes have no effect; they simply run down the sides of the bubble, creating a drop of color on the bottom. Other dyes can stain bubbles, but when they pop they also stain clothes, dogs and eyes, as Kehoe discovered during one accident. Other tests, including one for a bubble dye that washed out, didn't fare much better.

"I thought a washable bubble was a great idea," said Kehoe. "But the kids (of a large focus group) were covered head to toe in red dye. It looked like a scene from Braveheart."

In 2005, the Kehoe won the Grand Prize for Innovation from Popular Science for his Zubbles. At the time, we thought we'd be able to get our own Zubbles soon. Two years ago, we expected to see this product on the market any day. 250_zubblesThat was an optimistic promise.  But he persevered, and now the product he calls Zubbles is available to the public. So far, the bubbles only come in pinks and blue, sold separately for $14.95. That's for a mere four ounce bottle. The latest dye technique makes your clothing pink (or blue) but is supposed to disappear in about 15 minutes. A commenter elsewhere provided the first customer review I'd seen, and said the bubbles are less than impressive; that the dye pools at the bottom of the bubbles as in earlier prototypes, and that the dye hadn't disappeared from her clothing, but it washed off her skin easily. You can see a video made by another customer here. Maybe for this one, I'll wait until they get the bugs worked out before I place my order.

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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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May 23, 2017
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