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7 Classic Sports Moments Recreated in Lego

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Sometimes, a single moment in sports is so transcendentally classic, that the only way to recapture in its full glory is to rebuild it brick by brick. Literally. Using Lego building blocks as their medium, here are seven sporting events (from football, America's version, to football, the rest of the world's version) retold by meticulous architects in a pint-sized format.

1. Andy Murray's Wimbledon Victory

Andy Murray's dispatching of Novak Djokovic in July of 2013—the first time in 77 years that a native Brit won the men's singles tournament and defended his home turf—was immortalized by British publication The Guardian in the form of a stop-motion Lego animation capturing the final two minutes of Murray's victory on Wimbledon's hallowed center court. 

Brick-by-brick videos are something of a calling card for The Guardian's sports page: The Lego-wielding crew has Lego-fied all things athletic, from highlights from the London 2012 Olympic Games (both Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt got the Lego treatment) to Champions League soccer matches. And, for Lego enthusiasts rather than sport ones, designer Fabian Moritz screened a behind-the-scenes glance of the crew's Lego animation project, including the woes of using figures that don't have elbows.

2. David Beckham's Entire Career

Since Becks once confessed in an interview that he'd finagle a career as a Lego architect if being a footballer didn't pan out, a homage filmed and animated with Lego bricks as a highlight reel of sorts spanning the soccer star's career feels appropriate.

Wrapping up the four-and-a-half minute project in two weeks, Japanese animation studio Mori Pictures snapped some 1000 still photographs of a well-coiffed brick Beckham doppelganger standing in for the superstar's biggest moments, including the highs (a bending free kick over an awkwardly-smiling Greek defense) and the lows (Beckham's smiling Lego face being replaced with an angry smirk when flashed a red card).

3. The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games

What it lacks in animation, it makes up for in volume: In 2008, Lego enthusiasts from Hong Kong unpacked more than 300,000 Lego bricks and 4500 Lego citizens to construct a replica of Beijing's Olympic Village during the Summer Games. Measuring in at 10 feet by 26 feet, the construction includes the Bird's Nest Stadium, the Water Cube, and a host of athletes mid-competition.

The exhibition, built by the aptly named Hong Kong Lego Users Group, went on display at Hong Kong's Grand Century Place during August of 2008.

4. Chris Webber's Infamous March Madness Timeout Call

As a crash course for March Madness neophytes, Tauntr (a website that has also chronicled World Cup and classic NBA playoff highlights in Lego form) animated four classic moments from NCAA college basketball history using Lego bricks. The video, clocking in at just over two minutes, includes "One Shining Moment" highlight reel staples like Christian Laettner's late game heroics in 1992 to help Duke polish off Kentucky, Tyrus Edney's mad dash for a shot as Missouri toppled UCLA in 1996, and, most recently, Butler's Gordon Heyward's missed desperation shot in 2010's title game loss to Duke.

The highlight here is a Lego recounting of University of Michigan superstar Chris Webber's poorly orchestrated timeout in 1993's tournament game against the North Carolina Tar Heels. In a stroke of clever inspiration, the folks at Tauntr include a fan waving a sign that points out, "This Won't Count Anyways," referencing NCAA sanctions against the Wolverines when Webber was found to have received illegal benefits.

5. A Brief, Lego-ized History of FIFA's European Championship

A teenage England national football team supporter, 18-year-old Graham Love, preempted FIFA's 2012 European Championship with a YouTube video retelling some of the tournament's most storied moments with Lego figures. Love was aware of his national side's woes in the tournament when he shot the video: He spotlighted a handful of moments from the tourney most England fans would probably like to forget, including England's failure to qualify on their home field (historic Wembley Stadium) against Croatia in 2008.

The optimistic Love capped his video—which spanned from Cristiano Ronaldo's bawl after losing in the 2004 final to a cameo of Ireland's Ray Houghton scoring on a header in Euro 1988—with a graphic asking, "Hodgson's Heroes 2012?" Alas, Love's beloved Three Lions (nicknamed for skipper Roy Hodgson) lost in the quarterfinals in a penalty kick shootout against Italy. 

6. Super Bowl XLV

German website Bricksports.de dipped its toes into the Lego animation pool, initially only recreating football matches including Bundesliga club Hannover 96. After tackling more major sporting events—2008's European Championship and the 2010 World Cup—Brick Sports finally crossed over to cover the holy grail of competitions across the Atlantic: Super Bowl XLV. Brick Sports captures the game's signature plays, right down to the teams' pre-game tunnel sprint. Their reimagining of the Super Bowl captured the interest of The Guardian, and Brick Sports teamed up with the publication for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

7. The Red Sox' 2013 World Series Win

OK, so it's not quite Lego, but after the Boston Red Sox trumped the St. Louis Cardinals to win the 2013 World Series, Sports Illustrated for Kids used Lego-esque OYO Sportstoys to recreate pivotal moments from the series in painstaking detail. The figurines also gave SI Kids some joints that The Guardian's Moritz lamented that Lego lacked (OYO Sportstoys are more flexible).

Using what Sports Illustrated For Kids deemed "stunning OYO brickimation," the magazine also recapped the most memorable plays from the American League Championship Series and its National League counterpart. The players are OYO, but as CBS Sports sleuthed, the playing surface is made of Lego.

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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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May 23, 2017
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