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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning

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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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Volkswagen
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Volkswagen Introduces Electric Version of Classic Microbus
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Volkswagen

Following the success of the compact Volkswagen Beetle, German automaker Volkswagen expanded its line in 1950 with the release of the Type 2. Customers preferred a less clinical name, opting to call it the camper, the bus, or the transporter. Able to tote mass quantities of counter-culture protesters, the Volkswagen bus became a symbol in antiwar movements of the 1960s before disappearing to the scrap heap of expired popular culture.

Recently, the company has doubled down on claims it would be revisiting it as a smaller vehicle. At a recent presentation at a Pebble Beach charity car expo, Volkswagen announced the bus—previously identified as the I.D. Buzz—would be returning in 2022 as a fully electric and consolidated version of the classic.

A look at the interior of the Volkswagen Microbus
Volkswagen

CEO Herbert Diess said that prototype versions of the vehicle on display at recent trade shows led to encouraging feedback that convinced the company to move forward. The I.D. Buzz is expected to have 369 horsepower, a considerable boost from the 25 of the original, and might implement self-driving elements. The concept car—which may or may not make it to roads with all of the same features—has a retractable wheel and movable seats when autonomy is engaged. The future of cars is looking more and more like a portable living room.

[h/t Inhabitat]

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Live Smarter
This Smart Fridge Camera Will Warn You When Your Food Is Going Bad
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iStock

Food waste costs us a whole lot, both in terms of money and environmental impact. The USDA estimates that American families could each save about $1500 a year if they just ate all the food they bought. Sure, you could eat ice cream made of food waste from your local farmers market, but a more effective solution would be to cut back on the amount of food you personally waste every week.

A smart fridge can help, and you don’t have to buy an entirely new appliance to get one, according to Inhabitat. Smarter’s FridgeCam turns any refrigerator into a smart appliance, and all for just $127. Smarter, a British company that also makes smart teakettles and coffeemakers that hook up to your phone, designed the wireless FridgeCam to fit into any fridge.

A product shot shows a circular white smart camera against a white background.
Smarter

Once installed, you can peer inside your fridge from your phone, no matter where you are. (Which saves energy, too.) You can set the app to ping you when it senses you’re near a convenience store or grocery store to remind you to pick something up, or you can set it to autopopulate an online shopping cart of necessities.

In addition to letting you see your food with your own eyes, the camera tracks expiration dates in order to remind you when it's time to buy more milk and what food needs to be eaten ASAP. The Smarter Chef feature even suggests recipes based on what you have at home, including the stuff that you’ll need to throw out if you don’t use it up soon.

It’s unclear exactly how the camera tracks expiration dates, since presumably it might be hard for a camera to see an expiration date listed on the bottom of a jar, for instance. You might have to scan or input them yourself. Either way, a single camera that costs less than $200 is a whole lot cheaper than buying a new fridge. A futuristic kitchen just became a whole lot more affordable.

The FridgeCam is available for pre-order here.

[h/t Inhabitat]

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