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17 Skeuomorphs That Show Retro Is Always In

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In 1889, H. Colley March noticed that some ancient artifacts had a retro look. They imitated—just for show—elements from older objects. Bronze axes had “thong-work” like flint axes. Pottery bowls had patterns resembling basket weaving. March coined the term skeuomorph (SKYOO-uh-morf), from Greek skéuos (container or tool) and morphḗ (shape), for these design throwbacks. But skeuomorphs aren’t confined to museums. Look around and you’ll find them everywhere.

1. Electric candles

Whether they’re gleaming in chandeliers or flickering on a restaurant table, electric lights masquerading as candles are skeuomorphs.

2. Music synthesizers

Electronic synthesizers can emulate anything from a piccolo to a double bass, or produce electronic peeps, booms, and jangles. They may be no-nonsense boards with sliders and knobs, but they often skeuomorphically take on the look of traditional instruments like guitars or piano keyboards.

3. Automobile wheel spokes

Wagon wheels and bike wheels need spokes. Car wheels don’t, but for some reason they look cool with them.

4. Woodie cars

The “woodie” cars of the 1930s and ‘40s skeuomorphically featured wooden passenger compartments echoing the look of horse-drawn carriages. In fact, the components were sometimes crafted by coach-building firms. Later model woodies with fake wood panels were skeuomorphs of skeuomorphs.

5. Wooden cash register

In another twist on wooden skeuomorphs, Lindsay Zuelich handcrafted an “antique” cash register for her booth at the giant crafts market, Crafted at the Port of Los Angeles. The drawers work, but calculations are done on an iPad and a Square Card Reader accepts payments.

6. Imitation leather

Pleather, Ultrasuede or the “hyde” of the wild Nauga—if it’s fake leather, it’s a real skeuomorph.

7. Deleting Files

When computer manufacturers decided to move their machines from the clutches of techies into the jittery hands of the general public, they thought skeuomorphic graphical user interfaces would make them comfortingly familiar. That crumpling paper sound is very satisfying.

8. Saving Files

It's unlikely you're still using floppy disks to save your documents.

9. Shopping cart icon

What could graphically represent the process of gathering items to purchase online better than the familiar supermarket cart?

10. Clicks on camera phones

Sounds can be skeuomorphic too. Camera phones don’t have mechanical shutters, but the electronically produced click reassures users that they’ve “snapped” a picture.

11. Old Phone ring tone

Amid the cacophony of chirps, croaks, and pop tunes emanating from cell phones, the sharp brrring! tone out of a 1930s movie is a standout.

12. Even the phone icon itself

13-16. More Friendly Computers

Apple

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs loved the red-curtained “photo booths”...

...the contact lists that looked like leather-bound address books, and the simulated yellow legal pads for note taking.

But after his death, the anti-skeuomorphists at Apple won out. With the introduction of iOS7 last year, the wood-grain bookshelf was tossed into the virtual landfill.

17. Computer tools you manipulate like physical ones

Don’t play “Taps” for the skeuomorph yet. The Human Interfaces Group at Carnegie Mellon just announced an iPad app that lets users employ virtual tools with familiar hand movements from the real world. They can enlarge text by gripping and moving a virtual magnifying glass, highlight as if holding a digital felt-tip marker and erase with a real-looking pink eraser.

And besides, without the skeuomorphic envelope, how would you represent an email app?

All images courtesy of Thinkstock unless otherwise noted.

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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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May 23, 2017
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