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3 Awesome Social Impact Products

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Each year, thousands of beautifully designed gadgets hit the market that are undeniably awesome, but may not make a huge impact in the way people live their lives. The sad truth is: frivolous products usually get more media attention than their socially conscious counterparts. Today, we thought we'd rundown three of the cooler, awesomely designed social impact products that have come out recently.

1. Adjustable Eyeglasses

For more than 153 million people living in struggling nations around the world--people with poor or no eyesight--eyeglasses are considered a luxury. Imagine growing up in a country where even dime-store prescription glasses are a scarce or unaffordable. That's what makes the advent of adjustable eyeglasses so darn awesome.

Invented by Josh Silver and produced by his company, Oxford-based Adaptive Eyecare, Ltd., the adjustable eyeglasses use two flexible membranes filled with fluid. The wearer can adjust the refraction membranes him or herself, much like one would focus binoculars, until the optimal optics are achieved.

The impacts of these glasses are plentiful: they cost $1/pair (Silver hopes to sell a billion pairs by 2020) and don't need to be replaced every few years with a different prescription. Plus, a high level of optometric training isn't requiredto deploy the glasses. Do they work for everyone? No. The glasses only correct nearsightedness and farsightedness but not astigmatism. Still, for many around the world, they'll be seeing things in a whole new light.

2. Spider Boots

spiderboot1No, you can't exactly scale walls with these Spider Boots, but they're still pretty fantastic. In fact, they exist to make sure you DON'T scale walls, saving you (or the person wearing them) from being blown to bits by a land mine.

Experts estimate that there are 70 to 110 million active land mines in over 60 countries, killing or injuring more than one hundred people a day. In addition to killing indiscriminately, by rendering entire areas of a country "no-go zones," land mines can cripple an area's economic development.

Spider boots are here to change that. A study by Worrell, developer of the spider boot, showed that most mine casualties occur "because the shock wave comes from directly underneath the leg." The spider boot distances the foot from the source of the blast, thus sparing the wearer the mine shockwave.

A fragment resistant deflector shell then goes to work, protecting the wearer from shrapnel and debris. Finally, materials on the bottom of the shoe absorb the residual energy of the blast. The spider boot has won so much acclaim that one was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. Now that's design!

3. The XO

XO-PCThere are two billion children in poor countries who have little-to-no access to education. If we could get them all on the Internet, we could provide them such access, but how to do it?

Meet the XO - a laptop developed by the One Laptop Per Child initiative, launched by MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte. These things can do a lot more than throw down Xs and Os on the tic-tac-toe board. They can record voice and video, access wireless, handle high heat and humidity, and speak tons of different languages. They also have specially designed screens designed to work in direct sunlight.

Can they break? You can try, but the XO has no hard drive to crash, and only two internal cables - meaning there are less things that can possibly go wrong. 2mm thick plastic walls internal "bumpers" absorb shocks and spills, and the darn things have gigantic wireless antennas which "far outperform the typical laptop." Very cool!

Built in web browser, built in calculator, a PDF viewer for e-textbooks, a music composer, simple video editor, a text editor, built in-Wikipedia... Deployed in +30 locations around the world, the XO is changing the way kids learn -- kids that are well on their way to changing the world.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]