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Michael Page

Haptic Holography: The Next Mind-Blowing Technology

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Michael Page

Young people have had fun with the older generations, watching them struggle to wrap their heads around modern technology. It’s funny at times (like when they try to text) and frustrating at others (if you’re anything like me, you help your mother troubleshoot the wireless printer via telephone at least three times a year). But you can’t hold their confusion against them. Things truly have changed—my grandfather can remember the commercial release of televisions—and guess what? It’s only going to get crazier in the future.

While there are numerous examples of soon-to-come expanding consumer technology, “haptic holography” will be part of the next wave that will change the way we live and entertain ourselves. To understand exactly what that means and what it entails, we need to break down the concept.

“Haptic” devices, defined as things that communicate nonverbally via the sense of touch, have existed for a few decades. A modern day example would be a gaming controller that vibrates to communicate something happening on the screen, such as a running back being tackled in a game of Madden or an explosion in a first-person shooter.

Haptic holograms, therefore, will be ones that humans can interact with. Remember the hologram of Tupac? That was a hologram (obviously), it just wasn’t haptic—no one could interact with it. If you had walked up to it and tried to touch it, your hand would have passed right through it. But now research is being conducted on the idea of “mutual touching,” where a human can reach out and physically touch a hologram. The human would also feel a sensation in return, such as their hand being squeezed by the hologram. Basically, it would amount to a robotic interaction without all the metal gears.

Once perfected, this technology will have far-reaching practical benefits, from entertainment all the way to advances in medicine. For example, medical students would be able to practice surgical procedures on a hologram, experimenting first on an “enlarged” version of the human body and slowly reducing it down to normal size as they become more comfortable with the surgery.

In terms of entertainment, holographic video would allow us to view a sporting event from different angles in a way unlike anything we experience today. Think of it this way: Right now, if we’re sitting on the left side of a theater watching a 3D movie, there would be no change in what we saw if we moved over to the right side. With holographic video, moving to the other side of the theater would give you a different vantage point on the same image. Thus, if a hockey game was viewed in holographic video, you could watch the same goal being scored from multiple angles by simply changing your position in the room, according to Michael Page, a professor at OCAD University in Toronto who has been researching holography for 30 years.

“I have to say that holograms pretty much have to be seen firsthand to believe,” Page says. “Most people have not seen our technology.” 

So when will we see it? Page says that within three years we will have haptic gaming systems on the market that are affordable, both in the form of consoles and via the iPad and smart phones. He said that holographic musical instruments, such as drum kits, are already being tested and that medical simulations are not far off. And it only seems reasonable to assume that once nonverbal haptic holograms are perfected, the next step will of course be verbal interaction.

Yes, our imaginary friends might indeed not be so imaginary in the future. 

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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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