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5 Things You Didn't Know About Nolan Bushnell

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His name may not ring any bells, but if you were born after 1970, chances are Nolan Bushnell had a hand in shaping your childhood. Let’s take a look at five things you might not know about this inventive businessman.

© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS (1985)

1. He Invented Pong

Yep, Bushnell’s the man behind the video game revolution. He first debuted Pong, which he developed with Allan Alcorn, as an arcade game at a Sunnyvale, CA, bar in 1971, and tavern patrons loved it. In fact, the machine was so popular that first night that it broke down when its coin receptacle became overloaded.

That’s not to say Pong was an immediate success on all fronts, though. When Bushnell took the first consumer version of Pong to a toy show, he moved a whopping total of zero units. Bushnell later reminisced, “One of the most successful consumer products of the time, and we sold none.... Innovation is hard.”

Of course, Bushnell’s home version of the game eventually became a smashing success, and his company, Atari, became a household name. Atari, by the way, took its name from the board game Go. In Go, "atari" is a term that indicates that a player’s stone (or group of a player’s stones) are in immediate danger of being captured by their opponent.

2. He Wasn’t Done. He Also Founded Chuck E. Cheese’s

If you’ve ever enjoyed watching a band of animatronic animals play a tune while you eat decidedly average pizza, tip your cap to Bushnell. In 1977, the whole arcade concept was still fairly young, and Atari was having an odd problem: it couldn’t get pizza parlors to buy its games.

Bushnell couldn’t wrap his head around pizza joints’ reluctance to buy his units. Sure, a Pong machine cost around $1,000 in up-front costs, but by his estimates a machine took in between $150 and $300 per week. Why were so many people passing on what seemed like a pretty easy cash cow? Bushnell then realized what he needed to do. If other people didn’t want to reap the rewards of operating these arcade games, he’d do it himself.

Bushnell opened the first Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre in San Jose, CA, in 1977, and the chain now has over 500 stores around North and South America.

3. He Had Some Pretty Famous Employees

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak are famous for founding Apple, but they used to work for Bushnell. When Atari was booming in the late 70s, the two programmers worked on the company’s games. Apparently Wozniak was pretty affable, but Bushnell later described the young Jobs as “abrasive.” Rather than just canning Jobs because he didn’t always play well with others, though, Bushnell put the young programmer on a night engineering shift…by himself. Problem solved!

Wozniak and Jobs actually worked together to create at least one Atari game you’d probably recognize. Bushnell gave the duo the idea for a paddle-based game where players tried to destroy bricks. Wozniak took the lead and played a significant role in designing what would become Breakout.

4. He Got His Start at the Carnival

Bushnell may be known for his technological breakthroughs, but he got his start on the midway. When Bushnell was a young man working on his degree in electrical engineering at the University of Utah, he had a job at Salt Lake City’s Lagoon Amusement Park. He started out as the barker and operator of the game where one tries to knock down a stack of milk bottles with softballs, but he later became the manager of the entire midway.

Bushnell later told Wired that even though the carnival games were blatantly rigged, he didn’t think they were all bad. He remembered liking the social interaction he saw among the players and the crowds, and he liked to stack the weighted bottles in creative ways so that seemingly wimpy players would be able to knock them over and win a prize easily.

5. Robots Haven’t Always Been Good to Him

Bushnell struck gold with Atari and Chuck E. Cheese’s, but his investments haven’t always performed so well. During the 1980s he moved on to a project called the Catalyst Group, which was basically one of the world’s first business incubators. The Catalyst Group ended up sinking a lot of money into a company called Androbot, which produced a three-foot-tall robot named Topo.

Topo wasn’t a very big robot, but it nearly broke Bushnell. The basic idea behind Topo was that it could be programmed to do small household tasks and walk around a room. Unfortunately for Bushnell, the robot never really worked all that well, and it was potentially dangerous and destructive when it went on the fritz. Bushnell later told Inc., “If a computer crashes, it doesn't break anything, but when one of these went haywire, it was not a pretty thing.”

The failure of Topo cost Bushnell over $20 million from his personal fortune, and he had to give up his Lear jet and his $6 million home. Lately he’s worked on a company called uWink that built on the Chuck E. Cheese’s model to allow restaurant patrons to used digital touch screens to access a variety of entertainment at their tables. It didn't do so well, either; in September uWink announced it was closing its three outlets.

If there's someone you'd like to see profiled in a future edition of '5 Things You Didn't Know About...,' leave us a comment. You can read the previous installments 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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May 23, 2017
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