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A disembodied robot mouth and 14 other 2020 stories we laughed at

Goodbye 2020, and good riddance! But before we slam the door shut on this tumultuous year, let’s try to raise a smile or two by revisiting some of the more amusing tech stories that landed on the pages of Digital Trends over the last 12 months. Here’s a recap of the weirdest, wildest, and most hilariously strange stories we’ve run this year. Enjoy!

A.I. fail as robot TV camera follows bald head instead of soccer ball

Inverness Caledonian broadcast games with a robot camera programmed to follow ball in their Scottish second tier matches. The commentator had to apologize as camera kept on mistaking bald linesman’s head for ball and simply following it up and down field ????

— roger bennett (@rogbennett) October 29, 2020

While artificial intelligence (A.I.) has clearly made astonishing strides in recent years, the technology is still prone to the occasional fail.

Take this soccer match in Scotland between Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ayr United. Played behind closed doors due to the pandemic, Inverness decided to deploy an A.I.-powered robot camera to livestream the clash. While the camera was supposed to automatically follow the soccer ball, it clearly had other ideas.

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Invite a horse called Eddie to your next Zoom conference

Peace N Peas

With Zoom becoming the go-to videoconferencing software of 2020, a couple of quick-thinking entrepreneurs in North Carolina came up with the absurd idea of offering a range of animals for surprise guest appearances during Zoom calls. Mambo the donkey, Eddie the horse, and various ducks and chickens are all available for a $50 fee.

One of the creators, Francie Dunlap, said that if you’re feeling a little mischievous, the animal’s display name can be changed to that of “the colleague who never logs on, or the co-worker who asks too many questions, or the boss who organized the meeting in the first place.”

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An old TV crashed an entire village’s broadband for 18 months

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The broadband connection for the 400 residents of Aberhosan, Wales, used to fail every morning at exactly the same time. But no one knew why. A long-running investigation eventually discovered that an aging television set owned by a local couple was emitting a powerful burst of electrical interference, messing up the internet for everyone in the village.

“It turned out that at 7 a.m. every morning the occupants would switch on their old TV, which would in turn knock out broadband for the entire village,” engineer Michael Jones said.

When the couple were informed of the issue, they were “mortified” that their ancient contraption had been causing the village’s connectivity problems. They’ve agreed not to use it again.

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This inflatable, backpack-sized e-bike is the most ridiculous transport idea yet

Poimo bike 1
University of Tokyo

The electric Poimo bike is as bonkers as it is brilliant. Before you can ride away on it, you first have to pump it up (the bike, not the wheels) before attaching parts such as the wheels, battery, and handlebars. That’s right, the Poimo is an inflatable e-bike — surely the world’s first.

If carrying around a clunky, foldable two-wheeler is too much hassle, then this quirky contraption, which when deflated fits neatly inside a small bag, may be just the ticket (though you may need another bag for the wheels, battery …)

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This self-driving racing car could have done with a driver

Roborace is the world first driver-less/autonomous motorsports category.

This is one of their first live-broadcasted events.

This was the second run.

It drove straight into a wall.

— Ryan (@dogryan100) October 29, 2020

Building an autonomous vehicle is a fiendishly tricky endeavor, as evidenced by this calamitous start to a competition featuring self-driving racing cars.

As the driverless motor was about to leave the grid during the first live broadcast of Roborace — a racing series for autonomous vehicles — the car veered off from a standing start and smashed straight into a wall.

“Oh no, the start has not gone to plan,” the commentator said as the self-driving vehicle acquainted itself with a concrete block.

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Terrifying Monster Wolf robot aims to scare off bears

NHK News

It’s designed to scare off bears, but there’s a good chance it scares off a few humans, too. Why? Well, it probably has something to do with its glowing red eyes, exposed fangs, and an audio track that could be straight out of The Exorcist.

A couple of “Monster Wolf” robots have been set up on the edge of a town in northern Japan in a bid to keep the local community safe from unwanted bear visits.

The design of the robot wolf is based on a real one that roamed part of Japan more than 100 years ago before it was hunted into extinction, though we’re pretty certain it didn’t have those glowing red eyes.

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If you’re missing the office, this ingenious site has you covered

Kids Creative Agency

Aware that some folks working from home during the pandemic may miss the familiar, calming sounds of the office, the Berlin-based Kids Creative Agency came up with an ingenious website that lets you recreate the atmosphere of your workplace.

The customizable “office-noise generator” offers everything from the gentle hum of the photocopier and the bubbling of the water cooler to the clickety-clack of a colleague tapping away on their keyboard. And it all comes with a reassuring backing track of co-workers’ muffled conversation from around the office.

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Thanks to gait analysis, scientists know exactly how silly Monty Python’s walk is

Monty Python

There are surely few things sillier than John Cleese’s silly walk. Nearly five decades on, the Monty Python star’s body-bending maneuvers continue to amuse. Indeed, the walk is so wacky that it inspired a team of researchers at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire to find out precisely how much sillier Cleese’s walk is in comparison to regular human walking.

The research focused on what’s known in the trade as “gait analysis,” with the team using video-based motion analysis software to help it discover that Cleese’s walk is exactly 6.7 times more exaggerated (or sillier) than a regular human gait.

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French broadcaster posts obituaries of famous folks who are very much alive

Movie star Clint Eastwood is very much alive and well as of December 2020 and not, as the French website suggested, dead. Wikicommons

In a hugely embarrassing misstep, Radio France Internationale (RFI) accidentally posted on its website the obituaries of around 100 prominent figures who were still very much alive, among them movie star Clint Eastwood, former American president Jimmy Carter, Queen Elizabeth II, and soccer legend Pelé.

The prematurely posted articles also appeared on its partner platforms, including Google, Yahoo, MSN, and Flipboard.
The long-running French public radio service, which broadcasts globally and has a listenership in the tens of millions, put the awkward blunder down to a “technical error.”

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Parallel parking never looked as cool as it does in these record-breaking stunts

Perfect parallel parking - Guinness World Records

Guinness World Records this year recognized several incredible drivers for their remarkable ability to parallel park in a most unusual way. Forget the regular maneuver of slowly edging into the space using mirrors and a number of careful back-and-forths — British stunt driver Alastair Moffatt likes to approach the space at breakneck speed — backward — before braking, skidding, and spinning the vehicle into the space.

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Deepfake Queen Elizabeth II performs TikTok dance in alternative Christmas message

Deepfake Queen: 2020 Alternative Christmas Message

So, here we have Queen Elizabeth II performing a dance for TikTok as part of her traditional Christmas message. OK, it’s not quite how it looks, but this deepfake face-swapping video from a British broadcaster may have you fooled for a minute (well, at least until the 94-year-old head of state begins strutting her stuff).

The alternative Christmas message features a string of jokes but also cautions people to take extra care when seeking out news sources online. “If there is a theme to my message today, it is trust. Trust in what is genuine — and what is not,” the fake Elizabeth tells viewers.

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Because 2020’s not crazy enough, a robot mouth is singing A.I. prayers in Paris

Diemut Strebe: The Prayer

Don’t be alarmed, it’s only a disembodied robot mouth chanting algorithmically generated Gregorian-style prayers in the voice of Amazon’s Kendra.

The Prayer (above) is a rather odd-looking robotic installation created by German-born, U.S.-based artist Diemut Strebe in collaboration with researchers from CSAIL, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. It comprises a silicone nose and mouth, various robotic servos and motors, and cutting-edge A.I. neural networks that function to create original prayers. Strebe spoke to Digital Trends about why he created it.

If you’re not of a nervous disposition, then watch it in action above.

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Formula E team rolls with marble racing during pandemic postponement

marbles racing
Jelle’s Marble Runs

What do you do when a global pandemic ruins your motor racing season? Get out the marbles, that’s what.

That’s exactly what Formula E team Envision Virgin Racing did recently when it hooked up with Jelle’s Marble Runs (an established YouTube channel that’s been racing the little glass balls since 2006) for a planned season-long event dubbed — wait for it — “Marbula E.”

The first race, which took place in the spring, quickly racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. Watching the marbles roll along the track is surprisingly mesmerizing, thanks in part to the enthusiastic race commentary provided by Formula E regular Jack Nicholls.

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This rotary cell phone actually works — and you can buy it, too

A rotary cell phone.
Justine Haupt

It may be hard to believe, but this mobile phone actually went on sale in 2020. And sold out.

Dubbed “the rotary cell phone,” the quirky handset is the work of Justine Haupt, an engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. And yes, it actually works.

Folks looking for something super simple over a sophisticated smartphone would surely love this device, as well as those with a keen sense of humor.

The design above is no longer available, but the good news is that Haupt is currently working on a more refined version due out in spring 2021.

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These hilarious ads from the 1980s and ’90s show how far mobile tech has come

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Speaking of outlandish phones, let’s finish off with a feature that landed on Digital Trends in 2020 showing some absolutely shocking designs from over the years. Here we see the handsets in mainstream TV commercials that tried valiantly to make them look cool.

Read the full story.

Editors' Recommendations

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
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