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ToyTalk: How to Create Space Sounds from Everyday Life

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Two years ago, two Pixar alumni came together and founded ToyTalk—an app designed to combine conversation with entertainment. ToyTalk’s first project, The Winston Show, is a talk show starring characters—Winston and Ellington—that can listen and talk back to the app’s user.

And while designing an app comes with its own unique challenges, ToyTalk’s biggest challenge is recreating sounds of fantasy from everyday events and objects.

In the newest sketch from The Winston Show, "In the Movies," ToyTalk created a special episode where kids can play alien invaders who attack Winston’s ship. So how do you create sounds of interstellar warfare? And how do you make these sounds realistic for the kids who play the game?

Enter Frank Clary.

Clary, who worked on movies like Toy Story 3 and Avatar, is the sound designer of ToyTalk. He works to recreate sounds for the app by sourcing urban and metal sounds from everyday life. Clary first picked up sound design when he was a musician and worked with turntables. “I really loved shaping sounds and twisting them,” he said.

Clary’s love of sound continued into his professional career. “I’ve had the privilege of working on some amazing tracks before that offered me the opportunity to ride dragons on Avatar and buckling up in the drivers seat to reenact car chases for MI4: Ghost Protocol, but I’ve never had the chance to board a starship and engage in interstellar warfare,” Clary wrote on the ToyTalk blog.

According to Clary, the sound team needed to create the following sounds for the latest episode:

1. photon torpedo fire
2. impact and explosion
3. reverberant low frequency rumbles for the shaking ship
4. moaning metal
5. hissing air released by valves
6. heavy metal and plastic rattling on the ship’s bridge
7. a distress alarm

After compiling the list of necessary sounds, Clary then set out to find them.

“I believe that sound is responsible for bringing images to life,” Clary tells mental_floss. “Sound is an invisible medium that we’re always being exposed to.”

The team arranged to have mortar shells and dynamite blown up. They scoured submarines and battleships for heavy metal doors with stressed hinges. They dragged an anchor across different surfaces. They even called an officer from the San Francisco Police Department to record the sound from the department’s newest siren, which Clary had heard one day when he was sitting in his office. “It really caught my attention,” he says. The police department had adopted a new siren that mixed low frequency and high frequency sounds that would carry the screech of the siren further distances. Fortunately, the police department let ToyTalk stop by to record it for The Winston Show.

“My goal is always to sort of stretch our acceptance of reality on a visual medium of sorts,” Clary says.

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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]