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The Ubiquitous QR Code

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QR codes, or “quick response” codes, were invented more than 15 years ago in Japan as a way to track automobile parts in production. But as soon as marketers got wind of the technology and smartphones came on the scene, the codes, which can reveal text messages, videos, Web pages and even dial a phone number for you, started being used in myriad ways. As QR codes become more and more popular, they’ve been popping up in the most creative places.

TV Commercials

One of my favorite examples was during the Lost finale lat year. Some of you fans might have noticed the flash of a red QR code during a True Blood commercial. If you stopped your DVR and shifted back to the code, you could pause the frame and scan the code. From there, you would have been taken to an exclusive clip from season 3. (In fact, if you try the red QR code here, with the blood, it should still work!)

Billboards

Clothing companies have also been using them in innovative ways. For instance, window shoppers at some stores have wondered what the little square 8-bit-looking thingamajig is doing there next to, say, a certain jacket or a pair of shoes. Well, if you scan the code, you get a coupon for a discount on the item if you bring it inside the store on your phone. They’ve also been used in billboards. Calvin Klein used one to reveal a sensual video ad that played on your phone when you scanned the code.

Tattoos

More recently, we’ve seen a few different QR code tattoos. Jully Nascimento from Brazil got the below QR code inked on her arm. When scanned, it reads “hold on” - a song by Good Charlotte that Nascimento loves.


Tombstones

Japanese tombstone maker Ishinokoe now offers memorials that feature QR codes. Want to know more about the person entombed there? Just whip out your smartphone and scan the code. Closer to home, in Seattle, Quiring Monuments is also selling what they call "living headstones."


Games

Of course, readers of this blog may recall when we gave away a brand new Ford Fiesta using an inventive (if I don’t say so myself) QR code scavenger hunt that took gamers through Manhattan.

Art

But perhaps the most inventive use of the codes has been as works of art. For instance, artist Scott Blake uses them to construct composite portraits of people. Below is a portrait of radio show host Amy Goodman. Each code links to segments from her show over the past nine years.


And look how these fellows built out of nothing but sand on the beach!

And if that doesn’t rock your world, how about a hand-knitted QR code scarf?

This young lad got creative with M&Ms and built an edible one that takes you to M&M’s Web site.

And what QR code post would be complete without one made out of 5816 LEGO blocks?!

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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