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Ochre Jelly

Real People in LEGO

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Ochre Jelly

Photograph by Ochre Jelly.

Depicting a person we all recognize takes talent when you use a pencil or paintbrush. Doing it with LEGO blocks takes a particular kind of talent because of the restrictions inherent in the medium. I am no art critic, just an art fan. Neither am I a LEGO expert -in fact, I have never owned a set of LEGO bricks! But I can appreciate the talent that goes into recreating real life in bricks. It's like working with pixels, except your pixels are limited to specific sizes, shapes, and colors. And these artists do wonderful things with them!

Freddie Mercury

Photograph by Ochre Jelly.

The 20th anniversary of the death of Freddie Mercury inspired Iain Heath (Ochre Jelly) to build a likeness of the Queen singer in LEGO. He unveiled it in a post about Mercury's life and accomplishments. This figure inspired this post, because I marveled at how a LEGO artist could take a set of preformed blocks and choose just the right ones to set in the right places in order to recreate a human figure we all recognize, apart and separate from the many human figures we see every day. Image by Flickr user Iain Heath.

Sarah Palin

Heath is no beginner in recreating real people in LEGO form. In 2008, he sculpted then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin doing her signature wink at the camera.

Stephen Hawking

But Ochre Jelly's best known LEGO sculpture is one that internet surfers recognize, even if they don't know who did it (I didn't, until I researched this post). Heath sculpted Stephen Hawking in LEGO in 2007, then shared the building instructions. This creation amazed us because of the minimalist method that still conveyed exactly who the figure is. See more pictures here.

Mythbusters and Other Science Figures

There have been a few LEGO minifigures that are based on real people (ignore the fact that Santa Claus is included in the list). Most were only available for sale for a short time, or were never sold to the public, instead appearing in films or video games. However, LEGO artists are pretty good at altering existing minifigs to look like someone in particular.

@mythbusters (adam savage & jamie hyneman) by pixbymaia

Maia Weinstock enshrined your favorite internet scientists, science bloggers, and other science personalities in Lego! The project is called Scitweeps, as each person is identified by their Twitter feed. How many do you recognize? See the entire collection in her Flickr set. Shown here is Weinstock's version of Mythbuster's Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman. Get a closer view of the Mythbusters minifigs in another picture. Image by Flickr user pixbymaia.

Mark Twain and Other Historical Figures

Fine Clonier, a LEGO customization site, held a competition in 2007 in which artists customized minifigs into historical figures. This Mark Twain was the overall winner. See the other entries at Flickr.

Miracle on the Hudson

Real-life people and events can be recreated without customizing any minifigs at all when the perspective is different. Anyone who was around three years ago when Captain Chesley Sullenberger landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River will recognize this scene from the news coverage. Ken Osbon of Goshen Township, Ohio created this Lego version of the incident for BrickExpo 2010. The details are all there, from the debris in the water to the passengers on the wings.

Bella and Sebastian

Minifigures were used in this recreation of the cover of the 2005 album Push Barman to Open Old Wounds by Belle and Sebastian. Once again, the details around the minifigs make the LEGO version work. You can see an entire gallery of iconic album covers redone in LEGO at The Toy Zone.

Lt. John Pike


It only happened recently, but we've all seen the pictures. Doc Pop spent seven hours creating this LEGO diorama featuring Lt. Pike pepper-spraying a line of protesting UC Davis students. It was installed in one the many abandoned newspaper bins in San Francisco. Someone removed it less than four hours later, but the photographs remain. This scene reminds me of another campus protest incident 40 years ago that was also recreated in LEGO. Image by Flickr user docpop.

Conan O'Brien

Full-size human LEGO sculptures are another example of working in pixels, in which the shape of the bricks matters less than the placement, yet the overall effect is the same as working in pixels -just on a different scale. Brick artist Nathan Sawaya makes full-size sculptures as well as smaller artworks and mosaics. Here he poses with his full-size Conan O'Brien sculpture containing thousands of LEGO bricks. Sawaya has 1.5 million more bricks in his New York studio! Last summer, Sawaya made another sculpture of Conan in his superhero mode.

See more of Sawaya's works in his gallery. Henry Lim and Sean Kenney are other brick artists who build large-scale LEGO sculptures and mosaics that you should check out.

Of course, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of talented LEGO artists who recreate fictional characters, movie scenes, architecture, classical artworks, and more. See some of them at Brothers Brick, The Living Brick, and MOCpages, as well as other LEGO art sites.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]