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Meet Eero, the System That Will Change Your Wi-Fi Experience

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Like many people who grew up in the internet age, Nick Weaver was frequently on call to serve as tech support for his family, friends, and anyone who had his cell phone number. “For as long as I can remember,” he tells mental_floss, “I’ve been the guy who’s had to fix the internet.” The home networks he was constantly fixing were severely lacking—a single router couldn’t cover an entire home, leading to dead spots and long buffering times, not to mention that the routers always needed to be reset.

But there wasn’t a single product out there that could adequately fix those problems, so when he left his home in Chicago to attend Stanford University in California, leaving his parents without their tech support, Weaver set them up with a simple system they could use when the internet just wasn’t working: “I took all of their networking equipment and plugged it into a bright red surge protector,” he says. “When there was a problem, they’d go into the closet, hit the big red button, wait a minute or two, and turn it back on.” But the solution wasn’t exactly elegant, and that bugged him. “Today, internet connectivity is just as important as our running water and our power,” Weaver says. “There really needed to be a better option out there.”

And so, in 2014—eight years after he set up that rudimentary system for his parents—Weaver left the world of venture capital and co-founded eero with Nate Hardison and Amos Schallich. (The company is named after Eero Saarinen, the architect who designed Weaver’s elementary school.) Their goal was to create a Wi-Fi system that delivered a reliable signal across the home, was a cinch to set up (even for those who aren’t tech savvy), would auto-update and reset, and was nice to look at. “I wanted a product that was super simple that people could set up on their own and then not have to worry about it,” Weaver, now CEO of eero, says.

They were lofty goals, but Weaver and his team shipped their first systems in February 2016 to rave reviews—and his parents, who were part of eero's beta program from the beginning, love it too. “It took [my parents] longer to download the eero app than it did to set up a bulletproof network for their house,” Weaver says.

HOW IT WORKS

Traditional Wi-Fi systems rely on a single router—and Wi-Fi, which consists of radio waves, gets weaker the farther you get from that router. Add walls and stairs into the mix, and the signal can be significantly degraded. Which means that, even if you’re paying for high speed internet, you’re not getting those speeds with a single router throughout your home.

That’s where eero comes in. By placing the units around your home and syncing them, you create a mesh network, “basically a really fast data highway between [the units],” Weaver says. Each unit—a 4.75-inch-square white box that contains a dual-core 1 GHz CPU, two 802.11ac Wi-Fi radios, and five antennas—is an access point to the network. “If you have more access points around your home, devices like phones and computers are going to be closer to an eero, which means you’re going to have a stronger signal strength and a higher fidelity signal—and therefore [your connection is] going to be faster and more reliable,” he says.

Eero’s software allows the units to pick the fastest route on that data highway so you always have a fast and reliable connection (the company beta-tested its system in hundreds of homes for six months before the launch to make sure it would perform the way it was supposed to).

This is a huge improvement over the solutions that were available in the past, which involved multiple routers and tons of Ethernet wiring. Another oft-used option, range extenders, have a number of disadvantages, according to eero’s website, including the inability to connect multiple extenders in a row and the fact that they “often create an entirely separate network (SSID), so you find yourself having to continually switch from one network to the other as you move through your house.”

TESTING OUT EERO

Eero sent mental_floss a system so we could test it out for ourselves. Setup was relatively easy: We plugged the main eero unit into our modem using an Ethernet cable, downloaded the app, used Bluetooth to connect to the router, and let the app guide us through placement of the other two units. (We did have to call tech support to figure out why one unit wouldn’t sync with the others, but all it took was updating to the newest firmware and we were good to go.) Using an Apple Airport with our Time Warner router, we got 11 mbps; with eero, our speed jumped to 116 mbps, and we no longer got error screens when two people were trying to watch cat videos at once in the back bedrooms. (Gizmodo’s review notes that while eero “is not the fastest router you can buy ... it might be the most convenient.”)

The key to this experience, Weaver says, is in the fact that the company designed both its hardware and its software. “It’s a finely tuned system,” he says. “When you look at [our competitors], they have so many different products that the software is never tuned for the hardware. They go to low-cost manufacturers and say, ‘What can you build us?’ We tune every little piece of hardware from the actual guts of the device to the software that runs it to the cloud and mobile app that help control it to keep things running smoothly.” Eero updates its software about once a week and adds new features all the time—earlier this month, the company introduced TrueMesh; eero customers, the company wrote in a blog post, “will see up to 2x the speed within their network, far greater intelligence in how their network adapts to their home, and flexibility to add even more eeros to their system” overnight.

Fast internet speed and easy setup aren't where eero’s benefits end: The system has a number of awesome features. Using the app, customers can add guests to their network via text message. There are also robust controls that eero created using the feedback from parents. “They didn’t want to have to make settings for each device individually, so we came up with profiles,” Weaver says. “They also wanted to be able to access things both at home and on the go, and because we have our cloud, you can actually control your whole network everywhere. The biggest one was that kids were staying up really late playing games and there was no way to limit the internet without unplugging the router, and parents had work to do after they go to bed. So that’s where the time limit came from.” Eero has also partnered with Amazon to create an Alexa skill—if you have an Echo, you can ask it to find your phone based on which eero it’s nearest to or shut off the eero’s light when you’re ready to go to bed.

Currently, eero packages consist of between one and three units (though you can buy more depending on the size of your home). The systems aren’t cheap—three eeros will cost $499—but if you can’t afford that upfront, the company offers financing starting at $14 a month. “It doesn’t matter what income bracket you’re in—internet connectivity runs all the core experiences in our homes,” Weaver says. “You need it to relax, watch TV, listen to music, for homework, to do work, or to learn about new things. Great connectivity for homes is important for everyone.” And one could argue that in this age of cord cutting, when more people are streaming movies and television over the internet, the cost of eero might be worth never having to sit through buffering again.

You can pick up a unit at eero’s website or on Amazon.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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