Airing Tomorrow on PBS: OBJECTIFIED, a Documentary About Things

Objectified airs on PBS stations in the US on Tuesday, November 24, as part of the Independent Lens series. I highly recommend that you set your DVR to record this film, if you're interested in: documentaries, computers, how things are made, how things work, or why some toothpicks have that little sculpted circular part on one end but are pointy on the other. In other words, I recommend it for everyone.

Objectified is a special documentary: it's basically about nerds, but classy ones, and definitely smart ones. It's about the particular sort of nerd who designs objects (generally known as an "industrial designer") -- objects like your can opener, car door handle, computer mouse, light bulb, toothbrush, the chair you're sitting in right now, and so on. Whether we realize it or not, all of the man-made objects we use are designed by somebody. Some are designed better than others -- and by this, I mean they work better, not just "look cool" or "are high-tech," which are often confused for good design. Objectified is a documentary about those people who design objects, but it's also about objects themselves, filled with little examples of interesting design elements that I had never considered -- flourishes that make something work better or be more delightful to the person using it.

To get back to the toothpick example I hinted at earlier, in Objectified it is explained why certain toothpicks have one pointy end and the other end rounded, with two circular bulges. I had always assumed this was purely decorative. Actually, it turns out that the circular-sculpted-end can be snapped off and used as a toothpick tray, so you can reuse the toothpick, resting the pointy end on the little tray (see a photo here). How could I have used toothpicks my entire life and not known this? Well, if you think that's handy, just imagine an hour of little tidbits like that from designers who brought you all sorts of daily objects -- like the OXO Good Grips folks, designers from Apple Computer, Dieter Rams (famed designer for Braun in the mid twentieth century), and many many more.

Objectified is by the same filmmaker, Gary Hustwit, who made Helvetica a few years back -- that was a film about typefaces and those who create them. According to Hustwit there's a third documentary coming, to finish a trilogy of documentaries about design. I can hardly wait. Here's the trailer for Objectified, which airs tomorrow night (Tuesday, November 24) on PBS stations on the Independent Lens program. If you're setting your DVR to record it, search for Independent Lens and you'll be more likely to find the program.

Note: the version of Objectified shown on Independent Lens has been edited down by 15 minutes to fit the available broadcast slot. If you want to see the rest of it, rent the DVD, which is available now. Also, if you have Netflix, Hustwit's film Helvetica is currently available for on-demand streaming.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


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]