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This App Wants to Help You Become a Better Singer

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A new app promises to make you just a little less embarrassing at your next round of karaoke. Vanido, which is billed as a "personal singing coach," provides daily lessons and real-time feedback to help improve your voice and your ear, as The Verge reports.

When you first sign up, the app—free on iOS with an Android version in the works—determines your vocal range, tailoring exercises to your natural vocal abilities. After that, the app assigns practice activities that involve various singing techniques, including chest voice, head voice, and foundational skills—though it doesn’t actually explain what those categories mean.

Fortunately, users don’t necessarily need to understand those categories to complete the tasks. Similar to playing the music video game Rock Band, notes appear as colored bricks that move across the screen. When they cross over the line, you have to hit that note, which you hear through your headphones simultaneously. A continuous orange line representing your voice illustrates which note you're singing, helping with adjustments.

However much you might want to turn this into performance boot camp, Vanido limits practice time. You can only take up to three lessons a day, although you can repeat them as many times as you’d like.

After a few days of trying the app, I have, disappointingly, not gained the vocal range of Whitney Houston. In fact, I can’t really tell if I’ve improved at all, even though the app records and scores every note I sing into my phone.

It’s hard to tell how well you’re doing based on your “VANI XP” level. And along with the score from each complete lesson, the app includes an encouraging note, meaning that I can’t really tell if I’m "doing great!" or if the app is just trying not to wound my pride. Based on how horrifying my voice sounds coming through my headphones, it's the latter.

Still, being able to see my pitch and exactly how far I've strayed from the note makes my lack of skills into a challenge to overcome, rather than simply an embarrassing disappointment. Each completed exercise feels like winning a game. I would often go back and repeat the same lessons immediately to get a better score. I looked forward to practicing every night, even though I refused to do it before everyone in my apartment was safely asleep.

Hopefully, doing all of these exercises means that someday my voice won't be quite so embarrassing. One day, maybe the app will even give me enough positive feedback to convince me to let someone else hear me sing.

[h/t The Verge]

All images courtesy Vanido

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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