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A Brief History—and Future—of the Shopping Cart

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They're everywhere - in almost every grocery store, department store, and bulk item superstore. Depending on where you live in the world, you might call them carts, trolleys, carriages, buggies, or wagons. The guys from MTV's Jackass practically built their careers on them. Yet most of us have never really considered just where the ubiquitous shopping cart came from. Come along as we take a trip through the fascinating history – and possible future – of the common grocery cart.

Let's Get Rolling
Sylvan Goldman had a problem. As was customary for grocery stores in 1936, his Standard/Piggly Wiggly locations in Oklahoma City supplied shoppers with a small wooden or wire basket for them to carry as they wandered up and down the aisles. Once the basket got too heavy, though, customers headed for the check-out line, a situation Goldman wanted to avoid. To keep them buying, Goldman was determined to figure out a way to make heavy baskets more manageable.

One night, he happened to look at a wooden folding chair and inspiration struck.

He placed one shopping basket on the seat and another under the chair, then envisioned wheels on the legs, and a handle on the back. He was on to something. It took a few months of tinkering, but Goldman eventually settled on a design that was convenient and flexible. To use a cart, you took a folded-up frame from a row of them stacked side-by-side. In their folded form, they were only about 5” wide, so storage space was minimal — a factor Goldman knew would come into play for his invention to be accepted in other stores. Once unfolded, the shopper would grab two baskets and place them in two holders on the frame - one above and one below. When they were done shopping, the check-out girl simply put both baskets on the counter and rang everything up.

Unfortunately, the big debut of his big invention was a great big flop. Despite having a pretty young woman at the entrance to help customers set up the carts, the only people interested in using them were the elderly. Men were too proud to admit they needed help carrying a basket, and some younger women said they had pushed enough baby buggies that they weren't going to use one for shopping, too. Distraught, Goldman hatched another plan – he hired attractive men and women to push carts around inside the store and pretend to shop. When real customers came through the doors and refused the cart, the young woman at the entrance looked back into the store and said, “Why? Everyone else is using them.” Never underestimate the power of peer pressure.

By 1940, only three years after they were introduced, carts had become so popular, entire grocery stores were being designed around them with wider aisles and larger check-out counters to hold all the food people were buying.

Goldman's cart was a great jumping off point for more inventors to have a go at their own shopping cart designs. The first big innovator was Orla Watson, who, in 1947, made the baskets permanently attached to the cart, and redesigned them to have a hinged back, allowing each basket to nest inside another one like spoons for easy storage. The carts were a hit with shoppers, but a pain in the back for check-out girls who had to bend over and dig food out of the bottom basket for hours on end. So Watson made the top basket fold up and out of the way, while a hydraulic platform at the check-out counter would lift the bottom basket up to counter height at the push of a button.

The shopping cart we all know - with one big basket – was first introduced in the 1950s. Aside from a few tweaks here and there, like the baby seat, drink holders, the plastic handle, even bigger baskets, and upgraded wheels, the shopping cart's basic design hasn't changed much since then. But that doesn't mean that shopping cart technology has grown stagnant. Great minds out there are working on new ideas to take the shopping cart into the future.

One company, Springboard/Mercatus, has developed the Concierge system - a small LCD touchscreen attached to the handle that can make your shopping trip just a little bit easier. The screen not only shows you a map of the store, including where items are located in each aisle, but will also track where you are within the store to tell you what items are on sale in the aisle you're currently walking down. If you have a membership card for a store, you could swipe your card on the cart and it will tell you what items you've purchased before that are on sale this week. While you do your shopping, you can scan the barcodes of items as you place them in the cart and they'll automatically be added to your card number (and removed from the store's inventory). When you're finished, you simply hand the check-out person your membership card, they swipe it, and you swipe your debit card to pay for everything in your cart.

As the size of big-box stores approaches 250,000 square feet, many designers are looking for better ways for shoppers to get around. One possible idea is the UNIT shopping cart by Liubov Kurzanova. The cart features a retractable platform for the shopper to stand on while they use the steering wheel to scoot around the store on a rechargeable electric motor. The control panel also features an LCD screen to, among other things, help shoppers find items within the store. But the really big innovation of the UNIT is the barrel-shaped body with a flexible nylon net inside. When a shopper adds items to the net, it starts to droop further into the barrel. Once they get to the check-out and start removing items, the net starts to retract and come closer to the cart's opening, meaning the shopper never has to bend over to retrieve their purchases.

Fetch, Cart, Fetch!
How does a blind person shop at the grocery store? A canine assistant can't tell where the salsa is on the shelf, and most stores don't have braille on every price tag. It's one of the few things a blind person can't do for themselves nowadays. But soon, even this impossible task could be accomplished thanks to the RobotCart produced by Vladimir Kulyukin and students at Utah State University. On the cart's handle is a braille listing of all of the items in the store, each with its own code number. The shopper can punch in the number of the product on a keypad and, thanks to Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags hanging on the shelves, the robot will automatically start rolling towards the item in the store, giving voice instructions along the way to help the shopper follow along. To avoid obstacles – like a new store display or another shopper – the cart uses laser range finders to help it “see” the path ahead and adjust its route accordingly.

Stop, Thief!
Carts generally cost between $100 - $150 each, so losing them to thieves is not something a store can ignore. Almost every major city has one or more companies whose sole business is to retrieve and return abandoned carts to their rightful owners for a small fee. But many stores have taken steps to keep carts from disappearing in the first place with the installation of a system by Carttronics, a company out of San Diego. Their Cart Anti-theft Protection System (CAPS) is a plastic cap that slams down over one of the front wheels whenever a cart crosses over a magnetic barrier in the parking lot, essentially stopping it cold. An employee can unlock the wheel remotely or with a special electronic key.

The Dangers of Shopping
Shopping carts are pretty dangerous. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reported that 20,700 kids under 5 years old were treated in hospital emergency rooms for shopping cart-related accidents in 2005. About 75% of these injuries were to the head or neck with about 85% occurring after a kid fell out of the cart or caused the cart to tip over. Current restraint systems are inadequate for proper protection once a kid gets too old, so the AAP recommends putting your kids in carts that look like race cars or fire trucks. They're less likely to fall out and if they do, they don't have very far to go. Their best advice to help avoid shopping cart accidents – leave your kids with a caretaker while you go to the store by yourself.

Shopping carts are also pretty gross.  A 2007 study by the University of Arizona found that human saliva, mucus, urine, fecal matter, as well as the blood and juices from raw meat, were found on the handles and child seats of 36 grocery carts in San Francisco, Chicago, Tucson, and Tampa.  The carts ranked third on the list of nastiest public items to touch, with only playground equipment and the armrests on public transportation producing more germ-laden results.  

Because of this, many states have asked stores to provide sanitary wipes for customers, or to provide regular sanitation measures. Some of these measures include the PureCart cleaning system, which operates like a miniature car wash to spray carts with FDA- and EPA-approved chemicals that eliminate 99% of the nasties found on a typical shopping cart. A similar system, the Germ Terminator, created by Fleet Cleaning Systems, uses harmless UV-C ultraviolet light to destroy 99.9% of bacteria without chemicals. Both are incredibly economical – the PureCart costs about 1 cent per cart and the Germ Terminator is only about $3 per month to operate – which is generally cheaper and more effective than a container of wet wipes at the door.

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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.