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6 CES Technologies Ahead of Their Time

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Every year since 1967, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has been an ideal place for companies to present their groundbreaking audio, video, computer, and video game products. But sometimes the world just isn't ready. These six items weren't a hit at the time, but later became a part of our daily lives.

1. Sony Data Discman (1991 Summer CES)

A hot topic among book lovers today is the potential demise of the printed page now that e-readers have become so popular. But people were having the same conversation in 1991, when Sony debuted the first e-reader, the Data Discman, at a VIP-only party at the Four Seasons Hotel during Summer CES in Chicago.

The Data Discman was about the size of a drugstore paperback, weighed just under 2lbs, featured a monochrome LCD screen, and a full QWERTY keyboard. Users could search books - mainly dictionaries, encyclopedias, travel guides, and other reference materials - loaded onto 3.5” CDs that held up to 80,000 pages of text or 32,000 pictures. And when you were done reading, you could plug in your headphones and listen to a music CD, too.

Sony released several different versions of the Data Discman with varying features, like a flip-top screen. However, at $450 for the base model, it didn't catch on in America or Europe. (It was a hit in Japan.)

2. AT&T VideoPhone 2500 (1993 Winter CES)

While the concept of a videophone is almost as old as the telephone itself, and a handful of high-priced models aimed at businesses have been available since the late-1960s, AT&T’s VideoPhone 2500 was the first model marketed to the home consumer.

Although available in 1992, AT&T used the 1993 Winter CES to kickstart a large-scale campaign to promote the phone and its full-color, 3.3” LCD screen that could show video conversations over regular telephone lines.

Of course for the video to work, both callers had to have their own VideoPhone. And at $1,599 each, it was not a small investment. Even a price drop to $999 just 13 months after its release didn't help sales. But perhaps the main reason the VideoPhone didn't take off was that consumers simply didn't want to see each other every time they picked up the phone. Naturally AT&T tried to convince them otherwise with some clever marketing ideas. For example, VideoPhones were placed inside the lobbies of 150 Hilton Hotels for use by traveling salespeople. The salesperson's family could visit a local AT&T store to talk to their road warrior on the VideoPhone, or even rent a model for a few days to try it at home. However, these efforts couldn’t sway public opinion, and the VideoPhone was discontinued in 1995.

Today, of course, we carry smartphones in our pockets that feature Skype, Google Hangouts, Apple Facetime, and plenty of other apps that let us talk face-to-face using full-motion video as fast as our 3 or 4G cellular networks can handle. However, even now, video calls aren’t the norm. Maybe the videophone is a solution looking for a problem.

3. Sega Activator (1993 Winter CES)

Considered one of the worst video game controllers ever made, the Sega Activator, which debuted at CES in 1993, was an early, but severely flawed attempt at motion-based gameplay for the Sega Genesis.

The Activator was a flat, octagonal frame that sat on the floor in front of the TV. Each section of the frame emitted an infrared beam that corresponded with a button on the standard Genesis controller. Players stood inside the frame and, waving their hands and feet, broke the path of the beam that corresponded with the button they wanted to push, making their video game avatar move accordingly. In theory, anyway.

The controls were less than intuitive, and the beams weren't very responsive, so the player usually flailed around like one of those dancing windsock men in front of a local car dealership, with few intended responses from the on-screen character.

The Activator's poor functionality, coupled with the fact that it cost $150 – nearly as much as the Genesis itself - meant that motion-controlled video games would have to wait until 2006 when Nintendo released its wildly successful Wii console.

Here's the training video that came with the controller:

4. AT&T Edge 16 (1993 Winter CES)

When Xbox Live debuted in 2002, it revolutionized video games. With Xbox Live and the similar PlayStation Network, gamers can not only play head-to-head against each other, they can talk via headset microphones, and download exclusive game content like new characters or in-game equipment. Did you know Sega was offering the same thing back during the Clinton Administration?

In 1993, Sega partnered with AT&T to create a new device called the Edge 16. The Edge peripheral plugged into the cartridge slot of the Genesis console, and then a 2-player Sega game fit into the Edge. The device featured a telephone port so that two Edge owners could play against each other. This was possible because button mashes were transmitted over the phone line and the Edge device fooled the game into thinking the remote player was using the second controller on the Genesis. If the opponents plugged a telephone handset or hands-free headset into the Edge, they could call each other names as they played.

The Edge also had memory slots for storage cards capable of saving custom video game characters that could be used on other Edge-enabled consoles. Game makers could even develop special edition memory cards with exclusive characters, levels, or equipment, or make these extras available for download to an existing card.

Despite these advanced features, the Edge 16 never caught on with consumers. It was so unceremoniously canceled that I couldn’t even find any information on its demise. One possible stumbling block was that game makers had to tweak their code for the Edge device to work, adding to production costs.

5. Commercial Brake (1994 Winter CES)

Remember when you got your first TiVo? Remember how awesome it was to be able to easily skip past all those commercials? If you'd been at Winter CES in 1994, you could have been skipping commercials long before TiVo with Arista Technologies' Commercial Brake.

The $160 device sat between the VCR and the TV, and worked by looking for the black frame inserted before and after commercial breaks during the broadcast. The Brake would mark these points on an unused portion of the VHS tape and then, during playback, would blank out the screen and automatically fast-forward between them. Although the Commercial Brake was an add-on peripheral, Arista hoped to have the technology integrated into new VCRs over the coming years.

After CES, the Commercial Brake received a fair amount of buzz in the consumer electronics field. However, it couldn't capitalize on the publicity, because Arista became mired in a lengthy legal battle with the actual inventor of the commerical-sensing technology. The device's release onto the market was delayed until 1996, the same year that DVD debuted to much fanfare at CES, signaling the death knell of the VCR.

6. The Listen Up Player (1997 Winter CES)

At the 1997 Winter CES, the trade show floor was abuzz with excitement about the Listen Up Player from Audio Highway. The $299 gadget even won the CES Innovations '97 Award. And considering you probably use a descendent of the Listen Up every day at the office, at the gym, or during your commute, there's no doubt it was innovative, even if no one remembers it.

With special “AudioWiz” software installed on their desktop PC, users downloaded previously recorded MP3s, ranging from newspaper and magazine articles, movie and music reviews, or even their own emails that were recorded via a text-to-voice translator. The MP3s were then copied to the Listen Up, a small, portable, battery-powered device that played the audio back through standard headphones. This all sounds like pretty standard stuff today, but it was groundbreaking in 1997, because the Listen Up was the first portable MP3 player on the market.

While it might have been the first, it wasn't the first successful one. According to Time Magazine, only about 25 Listen Up Players were produced and an unknown number were ever actually sold. It would seem that the Listen Up Player was just a little too soon for consumers. Only a year later, the Diamond Rio PMP300 portable MP3 player debuted and went on to sell over 200,000 units.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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