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Industrial Robots Turn Construction Worker, One LEGO Brick at a Time

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LEGO bricks have proven themselves more than a simple children’s toy.

But can the plastic pieces provoke a major shift in industrial manufacturing?

Autodesk thinks so. Which is why the software company has been working on Brickbot—a project aimed at redefining how customers engage and collaborate with robots.

The system—a couple of android arms with cameras and sensors—doesn’t look like anything groundbreaking. But it’s what’s inside that counts.

A team of San Francisco-based researchers, led by Mike Haley and Yotto Koga, created neural networks that allow the machines to process and respond to data to accomplish an assigned task.

“The dirty little secret about industrial robots today is that they’re pretty dumb,” Autodesk wrote last month, promoting an article by Fast Company. “Change one variable on the assembly line and everything goes to hell.”

Brickbot, however, “can evaluate components (in this case, LEGOs), make decisions on the fly, and put them together in a flexible, responsive way.”

What sounds like child’s play (because, well, it is)—sorting through piles of bricks, selecting appropriate parts, correctly assembling and stacking—is actually an achievement in the field of robotics.

“The programming process is incredibly tedious, complicated, and frequently error-prone,” an Autodesk blog post said. “If it takes nine months to program your robot to perform a single task, you’re not going to change the design of your product or introduce new technology into your factory—it would simply take too much time and money.

“Machine learning could change all of that.”

Imagine the possibilities if Brickbot’s automated assembly technology were scaled up for use in factories and on construction sites.

“By starting with plastic bricks, we’ve been able to keep the project manageable while still having the freedom to experiment from the design stage all the way to a finished product,” according to Koga, a software architect with a Ph.D. in robotics.

“Now we’re close to taking the next step,” he said, tipping a partnership with manufacturing and construction customers “to see how the Brickbot technology can be applied in the real world.”

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‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Taps Performance Capture Tech to Elevate Effects

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Alita: Battle Angel is a thrilling mix of powerful cyborgs, post-apocalyptic cities, and gory fights. The sci-fi movie’s action sequences are courtesy of an advanced innovation: performance capture technology.

The futuristic flick, which hits theaters on Feb. 14, follows Alita (Rosa Salazar), an abandoned cyborg who becomes a fierce warrior to fight corrupt forces. This plot would be hard to accomplish with basic animation, however, performance capture technology enabled the movie’s team to generate lifelike special effects, PCMag reported.

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“This is the tech we’ve been developing. In an earlier test shoot, for [a movie that never got made, based on the novel] Brother Termite, when aliens were arriving, we had an actor perform with an umbrella rig around his head—12 cameras—everywhere,” Jon Landau, the producer of the film, told PCMag. “We saw a future where we would use that facial performance capture to drive performance rather than animating it.”

To make this digital vision possible, Alita: Battle Angel’s team partnered with Weta Digital, a visual effects company based in New Zealand. Unlike other animation systems, this performance capture technology doesn’t interfere with actors’ performances.

Rosa Salazar as Alita in ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ (Photo Credit: PCMag)

“The giant system [we have today], when it loses a data point, it’s still able to solve for the skeleton and what the muscles do,” Landau added. “[In our partnership with] Weta Digital … we’re now [able] to create Salazar’s performance from the inside, driving the performance from a muscle base—not putting a mask on the actor through animation—to make sure we are living up to the performance that Salazar is giving us.”

According to Weta Digital, performance capture technology notes details of an actor’s face performance, analyzes how their muscles move, and then maps these motions onto a virtual character. (For example, see Salazar above with dots on her face during the filming process.) What makes this technology cool is that it provides animated figures with human-like reactions, so directors can keep a good shooting flow without stopping to map every facial movement.

“I’m pretty technically proficient and I usually do my own visual effects supervisor role, but now I get to geek out with [Weta Digital],” Robert Rodriguez, Alita: Battle Angel’s director, told PCMag. “We can take it to another level having them and their knowledge.”

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General Motors Starts Taking Orders for Its First Electric Bike

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General Motors is reimagining future transportation with its first ARĪV electric bike brand.

In November 2018, General Motors held a global crowdfunding campaign for its new eBike brand. After fans submitted potential names, General Motors decided to call the brand ARĪV, which is pronounced like “arrive.”

The brand includes two connected eBikes: the Meld compact eBike and the Merge folding eBike, which will each retail between $3,106 and $3,782 in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. General Motors, which is taking preorders for the eBikes now via BikeExchange.com, said it will start shipping orders in a few months.

General Motors didn’t provide too many details on the eBikes, however, it said that the eBikes’ motors can reach speeds up to 15.5 mph and contain four levels of pedal-assisted power. There are also key safety features, including a rechargeable front, rear LED lights, and oversized break rotors. Plus, the eBikes’ batteries can be charged in approximately 3.5 hours and receive up to 40 miles of ride time on a single charge.

ARĪV Merge Electric Bike (Photo Credit: General Motors)

Connectivity is another key feature for both eBikes: They can connect to an app that provides users with key riding metrics, including distance, motor assist level, remaining battery level, and speed. Each eBike comes with a Quad Lock mount as well, so users can safely secure a smartphone to the handlebars during rides. General Motors also said it’s working on additional app features, including, “a mode that will use a proprietary algorithm to help riders arrive at their destination sweat-free.”

General Motors did not disclose if its new eBikes will be available in the U.S. and other countries, however, more details on specs and pricing are available on Bike Exchange’s website.

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NYC Author Ditches Smartphone for a Year to Enter $100,000 Vitaminwater Contest

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A New York-based millennial is giving up her smartphone for a year to try to win $100,000 from Vitaminwater.

In December, Vitaminwater introduced its phone-free challenge on Instagram and Twitter, which asked the social media community if they would ditch their smartphones for 12 months in exchange for the ultimate reward: $100,000 in cash.

On Friday, Vitaminwater, which sorted through more than 100,000 entries submitted on Instagram and Twitter, named its chosen candidate: Elana Mugdan, a 30-year-old filmmaker and young adult fantasy writer who lives in the New York City area, CNBC reported. Mugdan, who submitted an informercial-style video on Twitter, impressed judges with her humorous perspective on smartphone addiction.

Mugdan will trade her iPhone 5S for a throwback cellular device from Vitaminwater: A Kyocera flip phone without modern smartphone amenities like social media apps, direct messaging, and photo editing. For the next year, she won’t be allowed to use any smartphones or tablets, however, she can use desktop computers and laptops.

If she wins the challenge, Mugdan plans to donate some of her funds to charities and financially support her writing career. With the challenge, she aims to show other millennials that it’s possible to enjoy living in the moment without having a smartphone.

“I have this fantastic once a lifetime opportunity. You know you only get one chance, right?” Mugdan told CNBC. “So I want to use it for something good — I want to make a difference, make an impact, and get people talking about important things.”

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