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How Carly Gloge is Changing the Face of Toys

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It’s not exactly earth-shattering news: Kids have short attention spans. But innovator and designer Carly Gloge has been able to use that universal truth to create Ubooly, a groundbreaking interactive toy and Kickstarter darling that could shake up playtime.

As a designer who had worked on a number of mobile games, Gloge saw firsthand how fast the newness of an app wore off, especially for children. After a day or two of use, most apps were left to gather digital dust while kids (and adults) moved on to the new next thing. Gloge’s keen observation inspired her to combine the interactivity of mobile apps with the emotional attachment children tend to develop for stuffed animals. Ubooly, the resulting hybrid, achieved its Kickstarter goal not long after launching in 2012, then received $1.5 million in seed funding. It also landed Gloge and her co-founder and husband, Isaac Squires, on Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list last year.

If you ever begged Santa for a Teddy Ruxpin when you were a kid, then Ubooly will likely appeal to the grown-up toy geek in you. The phone and tablet-based stuffed toy goes far beyond popping a cassette tape in a teddy bear and watching him make random mouth movements to a non-interactive story. Though you still have to insert the phone into the body of the animal, Ubooly uses the WiFi and GPS technology in mobile devices and tablets to actually interact with users through hundreds of activities that are wirelessly updated every week, including teaching languages to—yes—telling Teddy Ruxpin-style stories. And Ubooly gets smarter over time, so it grows as children grow.

Gloge has gotten smarter over time, too—or at least wiser. “What I’ve learned is that you have to trust yourself,” she said. “When I first started working on Ubooly, I would to try to look at what everyone else had done that was successful and recreate it. What I really realized was that I had already had a ton of entrepreneurial experiences that I could pull from in everyday life.”

There’s no doubt about that. Ubooly isn’t the first company Gloge has founded. In 2007, she started Warb, a Boulder-based design firm that builds websites and mobile apps (among other things) for international clients.

“I’ve always been different and I don’t quite fit into the norms,” she has said. “Being an entrepreneur, I’m allowed to grow faster than I would otherwise, and I can actually have a huge impact on the world with my actions."

Big Brains. Small Films.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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