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The Quick 10: 10 Movie Theater Gimmicks

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You've probably noticed by the abundance of funny glasses available at your local Cineplex lately that 3D technology is the latest gimmick to become all the rage at movie theaters. It's only the first in a long line of techniques aimed at getting movie patrons in theater seats. Here are a few others.

1. Light tricks. Has anyone seen Wait Until Dark? Starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin, horror master Stephen King has called the film's ending one of the scariest moments in movie history. Perhaps it was the treatment theaters gave to this film that left such an impression on King: in the movie, there's a part where Audrey's character breaks all of the light bulbs in her apartment and shuts all of her window blinds so she is hidden in complete darkness. As she goes around the place breaking bulbs, theater employees dimmed the lights one by one and eventually turned them all off completely, plunging the theater into total darkness.


2. Smell-o-vision. There's a reason this technique was employed on just a single movie "“ it was expensive to install in multiple theaters, distracting (the smells made a hissing noise when they were emitted) and somewhat ineffective (the smells often didn't show up until after the thing that was supposed to be odorous had left the screen). Moviegoers were unimpressed and bad word of mouth killed this gimmick almost immediately. Although the movie, Scent of Mystery, was a huge flop, a similar but improved technique has been employed in more controlled environments "“ Disney uses smells in several movie-like attractions in their parks.

3. Odorama. Leave it to John Waters to pay homage to the kitch factor of Smellovision. When he released the movie Polyester in 1982, Waters gave all movie patrons scratch and sniff cards. When a number appeared on the screen, people in the audience were supposed to scratch the corresponding card. Smells included pizza, flowers, gas, grass and poo. Waters later commented that he was amused that audiences literally had to "pay to smell sh*t."

4. Seat belts. This was actually a gimmick that was scrapped before the movie's release. For William Castle's 1965 I Saw What You Did starring Joan Crawford, Castle released a statement saying that all movie theaters would have a section equipped with seatbelts. The reasoning? So people wouldn't be scared out of their seats, of course. He intended to follow through on this little marketing ploy until his financial backers informed him that it was just too costly.

5. Punishment Poll. Castle was the poster boy for movie gimmicks "“ he'd try anything once, no matter how silly or impractical. For Mr. Sardonicus, the audience received cards with glow in the dark thumbs on either side "“ thumbs up on one side and thumbs down on the other. Near the end of the movie, the audience is asked whether they want to help the main character or let him die. Their responses would determine which ending would be shown. Supposedly, no audience ever voted to let the man live, so the alternate ending was never needed. But one of the actresses in the movie claims a second ending was never shot at all, so the vote was all a sham.

6. The Tingler. Another William Castle for you. Told you this guy was crazy for weird marketing ploys! The 1959 thriller The Tingler was about a little parasite appropriately named the Tingler that affixed itself at the base of people's spines and could only be killed by the sound of the human scream. Scientists are studying this strange little creature when one of them escapes from the lab and heads directly into a packed movie theater. This is where Castle got his kicks in "“ select seats in the theaters had little vibrating devices wired on to them, which would go off at random during this scene.

7. Not one, not two, but three different endings. You might remember this one. Back when Clue was released in 1985, three endings were filmed "“ and all three were used. You didn't know which one you were going to see until you got to that point in the movie. Eventually, movie theaters started printing that information ("Ending A, B or C") in the newspaper next to the time listing. Not a bad way to get fans to pay to see the same movie three times, huh?

8. Race Car Chairs. At least, that was the idea. Several D-Boxes, vibrating theater chairs, were installed at Grauman's Chinese Theater and at another theater in Surprise, Arizona (surprise!) for the release of Fast & Furious last year. The chairs vibrated, leaned, tilted and shook according to the action happening on the screen. I've not heard of the D-Boxes being used for any film since Fast & Furious, so perhaps it wasn't a very effective gimmick.

9. Emergo. You can probably tell by the grandiose name that this is another William Castle brainchild. This one occurred at the end of House on Haunted Hill, the original 1959 version. As a skeleton gave chase to a character in the movie, a glow in the dark skeleton suspended on wires "floated" across the top of the theater. Hey, no one ever said Castle's tricks were all high-tech. People weren't always scared, though "“ it seems as if most of the time, it became a game to see who could pelt the skeleton with the most Milk Duds.

10. Sensurround. Sensurround = really, really loud movie. OK, it was slightly more complicated than that. Theaters had to install large, low frequency speakers in custom cabinets that often required removing a couple of rows of seats. It was used for the 1974 movie Earthquake and a few more films throughout the rest of the "˜70s, but after theaters complained of structural damage, movie patrons complained of being ill from the vibrations, and businesses near the theaters complained of noise pollution, Sensurround was basically halted.

Did you experience any of these little tricks first-hand? What did you think?

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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