Points of Contact: A new box with the London Borough of Camden

The Arts & Tourism team at the London Borough of Camden received funding from Arts Council England to deploy a Museum in a Box as the primary vehicle to engage young people in the Camden Arts Collection.

We made a box that contained eight works from the collection; a mixture of sculptural and two-dimensional pieces. The box travelled widely around Camden, and was part of 13 workshops across the borough, held at Swiss Cottage, Kentish Town, Queens Crescent and Kilburn Centre libraries, and the Great Ormond Street Hospital. The project culminated in Points of Contact: The Camden Art Collection Unboxed, an exhibition at the Swiss Cottage Library Gallery, open until 1st of July 2017.

Creating 3D from 2D
We were curious to try a sort of extrusion of some of the paintings in the box, and Tom worked to literally add a new dimension to works by Derek Jarman and others, to create a tactile version of each of the flat works.

Hands on, helpful user research
For us, a big part of the appeal of this partnership was the opportunity to conduct workshops with kids and their guardians in all the libraries we visited. We learned all sorts of things about putting the box in front of people who’d never seen it before, and faced a few teeth-clenching moments as the kids played with the 3D prints in unexpected ways (like making the Running Table try to pass through Barred Portal, which it turns out isn’t possible).

It was a pleasure to witness that first “what’s this magic thing?” look on people’s faces, and the general ease of use of the box. We also learned that the “cornucopia” display technique we’d used with more adults — where we spread lots of objects out and let people choose their own adventure — resulted in kids just wanting to try every object as quickly as possible to see what they’d say. In the later workshops, that led us to a more contemplative, steady demonstration, where we’d bring out one piece at a time, ask the kids about it, and then boop the object to see what happened.

We met lots of brilliant kids, but must give special mention to The Magnificent Balthazar, who we met at Swiss Cottage. He was very happy to sit with the objects and the box for well over an hour, and took the time to create his own rendition of each of the works in the box, all eight, and showed real artistic talent, even at just five years old! At one of the later workshops, run by artist Esther Springett, Angela & and her son, Lorenzo, came along, and enjoyed it so much they attended a second session. Angela even took the time to write a guest blog post on the Camden arts blog, where she reflected:

With 8 artists to choose from, Lorenzo chose the 3D printed ‘Cubes’ (Carl Heideken, 1973) and I have to say he totally surprised me with his creativity. After feeling the textures of the cubes and listening to an audio response to each object on special micro-chipped postcards, Lorenzo started to develop his own story about ’12 boxes 6 chances’. A 3D print definitely helped him to get a stronger connection with the piece.

It was brilliant to meet Angela and Lorenzo in person too, at the exhibition which opened in early May.

Exhibition!
This project was the first time that Museum in a Box ended up in an exhibition. It seemed a natural fit to exhibit all the prints, postcards and the box in the exhibition space. We created two versions to playback for visitors: the first was the “official” responses created by artists participating in the project, Esther, Ciara, and Jonathan. It was great fun to hear such creative responses coming out of the box when things were booped, instead of just a factual, wall-label-style rendition of information about each work.

The other set of postcards played responses made by the kids in each workshop. There were new stories and interpretations about each work, and, again, it was excellent fun to hear such creative takes on the art.

I must say, I did feel a bit strange about having the box locked down in an exhibition space, because it’s designed to be mobile, but once Charlie and I saw the superb installation Jonathan and Sophie had designed for the gallery space, my initial concerns disappeared quickly. Now we’re wondering how else a box might supplement a more traditional exhibition experience…

A Collaboration
We certainly didn’t complete this box in isolation, and it was a pleasure to collaborate with Sophie Rycroft and Samina Zahir from the Camden Arts team, Caroline Moore at the fabulous GOSH Arts, artist and gallery designer, Jonathan Miller, and last but not least, artist educators Esther Springett and Ciara Brennan, who surprised and delighted us mightily with their creativity and skill with kids.

Design for Disassembly

The design of the Brain has evolved as components have been added, removed and replaced. We are improving accessibility to the tech inside, and coming from a sustainable design background I wanted to challenge myself to produce an experimental Brain where the products’ full lifecycle is factored into its design. So, here’s what I’ve been up to…

The aim was for the Brain to do the following:

  • Provide easy access to the electronics
  • Enable components to be quickly changed or modified
  • Completely disassemble easily
  • No glue!

First came lots of planning, then sketching and then I got to work CAD-ing up the design. Creating the design digitally first was beneficial as it provided the ability to position the components in a virtual space, adding the wires also helped to visualise how crowded the Brain would be.

The most notable change to the design was how the Brain is held together. We currently glue panels with interlocking finger joints, but for this design they slot into channels on the top and bottom and are pulled together with brass standoffs in each corner. We often get asked how the Brains work but it’s not always easy to demonstrate, we therefore laser-cut the panels in plywood and clear acrylic making it clear to see what’s going on within the skull.

Panel flat-lay (excluding mounting nuts/bolts)

After some light sanding the Brain assembled for the first time and the components easily mounted to the dotted grid. Most importantly the feet can be unscrewed and the base panel lifted providing easy access to add and remove parts.

This Brain has enabled us to improve upon components that were appropriate in the past but no longer live up to our requirements. One example is the power socket which was previously glued to a laser cut shim and had a tendency to come loose, we managed to source a panel mount version which now works a treat (see pictures below).

I’m very happy with how well the design turned out, I’ve lost count how many times I’ve disassembled and reassembled it. We’ve primarily been using it as a prototyping Brain to quickly test out components and content but it’s also made us big fans of acrylic and we now have plans for a colourful set of CMYK boxes!

That’s all for now,

C

Making smaller brains

We’ve made about 20 prototype boxes now and have learned a great deal from each one. We wanted to highlight one particular box we made a couple of months ago where we experimented with a smaller form and what making it has taught us. 

The design of the box or ‘skull’ (the plywood/acrylic case that contains the tech) as we refer to it is dictated by two things: the form factor of the Raspberry Pi in question and all the features we feel necessary for the product to have.

Early on we were creating boxes with the Pi 2 which required a dongle to connect the box to the internet but several months ago we switched to the Pi 3 which features built-in WiFi saving space within the skull. Raspberry Pi also make the ‘Zero’ which is about half the size of the Pi 3, we liked the idea of a small box which would be more transportable and also not require mains power connection so we designed a smaller square brain inspired by the recorder box we made back in October.

Our prototype recording box which inspired the square brain design

I (Charlie) got to work with the layout of the hardware inside the box trying out a new method of speaker mount while Adrian worked his tech wizardry to figure out what hardware to adapt and then got cutting! The square brain featured several changes from the regular rectangle namely:

  • a power on/off button
  • push button volume control
  • No LED progress bar
  • an internal battery charged via a Pi charger board and micro USB cable
  • A single speaker mounted to one side

We tested the box at Nottingham’s Explorers Fair (we’ll share a post on that soon) where we had it set up alongside the standard rectangular box. Seeing the two side-by-side it was clear the rectangle with its larger surface area provided more of a platform for the children to place multiple objects on top of however the square allowed them to pick the box up and put it to their ear or sit down on the the floor with it.

Getting hands on with the square design at Nottingham’s Explorers Fair

Despite working well and having great mobility the square box also had some obvious limitations:

  • the Pi Zero only allowed us one speaker, so the sound wasn’t as good
  • the clicky volume buttons weren’t as effective or efficient as a dial
  • the lack of our physical progress bar didn’t help people understand they had to wait a bit
  • larger objects might not balance well on the smaller top
The square design with its illuminated power button and push button volume controls

We do love the smaller form factor but when you put the two designs side-by-side the larger rectangular box has a greater presence, not to mention more room for fiddly cables and components. It was a great thing to prototype and has since influenced alterations for our bigger boxes. This won’t be the last you see of square boxes however, I’ve had some fun recently prototyping a bigger ‘Design-for-Disassembly box, but all that is for another day.

C

Reflections on 2016

We’ve been working on Museum in a Box for just over a year now. We have made lots of prototypes, talked to all sorts of people, and had lots of exciting adventures. This is a little late coming, but Tom and I wanted to consciously reflect on last year’s work as we swing around to planning 2017 (which I’ll write about a bit later).

We’ve chosen a set of particular highlights that we thought stood out, and noted some casual reactions to them… Hope you enjoy the format 🙂

We were also pleased as punch to host Imogen Piper, a design student from Goldsmith’s, and Charlie Cattel-Killick, a sustainable product design graduate from Falmouth University who we ended up bringing into the fold!

Box highlights

  • First commission!
    Anne’s Big Stuff from the British Museum

    • George: When you’re starting something, it’s so helpful to have simple, unconditional support. Thanks to Russell for thinking of us.
    • Tom: This was great to kick start our production process and get us thinking about collections and the juxtaposition of object and content.
  • Ancient Egypt, Daily Lives
    British Museum demo box

    • George: A tiny insect tries to bite a huge beast. Thanks to Lizzie and Chris for not squishing us immediately, but allowing us to nibble for a bit. 😀
    • Tom: A nice first step working with a biggie. An excercise in designing 3D replicas from scratch and we got to test the box with some real-life museum kids!
  • Frogs in a Box
    Smithsonian demo box

    • George: Our first remote deployment. Very exciting to see a photo of the box in Washington DC.
    • Tom: Another stellar commision for us! Extremely grateful to Martin and Sara for believing in our potential.
  • The Planets

    • George: It was such a thrill to see Tom make this. A completely new form factor, and public domain content.
    • Tom: Sometimes it’s fun to run with a simple idea and this got a good public reaction. Bonus!
  • I See Wonder
    • George: Dreaming about a large pilot around the Smithsonian Libraries “I See Wonder” program (20 schools across 20 US states, working with kids on design, too) gave us a real taste of how big this thing could get, and stretched us handily considering such a big deployment.
    • Tom: Seeing what happens when we match our design and tech with Sara Cardello’s learning framework was pretty inspirational tbh!
  • MOO collaboration
    • George: We always knew we’d need help with distribution of boxes, and MOO’s NFC tech was right up our alley. Thanks to Chad, Phil, and Richard for supporting our crazy schemes!
    • Tom: Another nice (and ongoing) match: MOO make lovely paper products with embedded NFC that plays nice with our Brains. Plus we get to hang out with packaging expert Phil Thomas.

Select Clients & Projects

  • Cuming Museum
    • George: One of our first pieces of work that went from original objects to prints, thanks to Tom’s amazing 3D chops.
    • Tom: A nice validation of how 3D scanning can create access to the inaccessible and an amazing glimpse into how hard small museum staff work to connect people to heritage.
  • Science Museum
    • George: All sorts of opportunities here, from in-gallery display to outreach. Plus, they have an enigma machine.
    • Tom: Feels good that museum education staff here are exploring how 3D & interactive can be used in their work.
  • Smithsonian!
    • George: Part of our 2016 strategy was to try to work directly with big museums. Proud to say our “Frogs in a Box” box achieved this goal.
    • Tom: Wuuuut?! Yes this is true and makes me very happy.
  • First custom PCB
    • George: Even though the PCB is quite small, this was an exciting step for me. I absolutely love our physical progress bar feature, and was equally thrilled when Adrian suggested a custom board to support it! I should probably make some jewellry.
    • Tom: Adrian is a genius and made this look so simple! Inspirational and functional 🙂
  • Tiny micro:bit code contribution
    • George: We had been thinking integration with micro:bit would be good for us — probably like lots of other people! — because it has been so well distributed across the country. Still thinking that.
    • Tom: It was amazing to have Tom and Michal from Microsoft Research (!) in our studio, taking us through the possibilities of connecting our Brains to the micro:bit – and then making it happen!
  • Slippery travel crap / VHNIreland video
    • George: A mixture of deep regret and happiness because Tom and I made a good video to play at the talk we missed. Funny how adversity can produce lots of smiles 🙂
    • Tom: We were invited, we prepared, we missed the plane, we made a video, we were there in spirit. VHN are lovely people!

Selected Presentations

    • Lancaster Arts Additive Manufacturing Workshop
      • George: I really enjoyed meeting the folks around this workshop, particularly the amazing 3D printing engineers at Lancaster. Thanks to Richard and Caroline for inviting me!
    • Music Tech Fest
      • Tom: An exercise in capturing an event and working with (very clever) young people at the event in Berlin.
    • Flemish interface centre for cultural heritage (FARO)
      • George: Great to visit Brussels to talk about our work and “virtual heritage”. Nice to have Lizzie Edwards as my travel companion, too.

All in all, a pretty good year! Can’t wait to build on what we consider to be a great success. It’s also important to recognise and celebrate the efforts of Adrian McEwen, our brilliant technical partner from The North, who is responsible for much of the hardware-related development we’ve done this year (and some software too). Thanks, Adrian!

All boxed up at MOO

We recently paid a visit to our friends at MOO HQ which is only a stones throw from our Bloomsbury base to meet up with Toby Hextall and Phil Thomas who are the go-to designers on all things product and packaging. We wanted to get some packaging tips and also start prototyping a few concepts and Toby and Phil were kind enough to help us out.

 The Moo office is a beautiful and inspiring place and so we couldn’t help but take a few snaps before getting down to business.

Moo Entrance

After a catchup and some brainstorming we set to work on a first iteration container to house a brain box and set of MOO’s NFC cards. They have some great kit and we were able to prototype a set of packaging inserts and a card box using their Graphtec FC2250 Flatbed Plotter. The machine cuts and scores each piece of card very fast and accurately and it also works with an inDesign plug-in making the whole experience super smooth. 

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We learnt a lot about product packaging in a short period of time and worked through several iterations of inserts designed to hold a ply brain box and business card box. Whilst refining a design we also tried out various card stocks including thick corrugated sheets and recycled craft card. We discovered that the insert had a tendency to rise up around the plywood brain box so added two flaps that the brain would sit on top of to prevent this rising from happening. The box of cards also caused the insert to flex and so we tried out different tab widths as well as corrugated card to work around that.

Below is a video put together to show the machine we used to cut the inserts and the iterations in a little more detail:

We’re excited to see what else we can produce and how we can develop our packaging prototypes. We hope to spend some more time with Phil, Toby and the rest of the team in the future and we’ll keep you posted as always as things develop. Exciting times!

C.

charlie with phil

 

Pinball Wizard: Games for Learning

Last Thursday, Charlie and Tom went along to an event organised by the London Museums Group and hosted by the Jewish Museum London that was all about games in museums.

The day consisted of a series of talks by game makers from both inside and outside museums, all with lots of interesting takes on what games are and what they (should) do. It was a great chance for us to fill our brains with expert information and got us both thinking about how we might use some of the principles we learned to make Museum in a Box even more engaging and – gasp! – fun 😀

Needless to say, they had a healthy amount of fun and they share some of the ideas as well as their own thoughts in this post…

Some of our fave takeaways:

It’s fun to have fun – you’ll learn stuff along the way.

The day began with a keynote from Martha Henson who distilled what makes a game into three basic constituents:

  • Mechanics
    The rules of your game. How the game is played, what actions the player can make, win or fail states, how rules are enforced
  • Dynamics
    How the rules act in motion. How they respond to player input and interact with other rules. The “run-time” behaviour of a game.
  • Aesthetics
    The player’s experience of the game. Is it fun? Social? Frustrating? Hilarious?

From Martha Henson’s talk Creating Compelling Museum Games

I don’t know about you but I find it really handy – as an inexperienced game designer approaching the subject – to be able to turn to simple principles like these to keep me on track when making something.

Another reason I enjoyed Martha’s keynote is that she used games to explain the principles she was describing – she got the whole room to perform the act of game  design by playing Cat on Yer Head and showed how you can get people to do things they don’t normally do through play:

In the above short video I’m trying out an app called Bounden which was developed by Game Oven Studios for the Dutch National Ballet, an app that gets you to – if not exactly dance – at least move your body in an unusual way.

Check out slides form Martha’s talk here.

Games don’t have to be on a screen (gasp!)

While I am most definitely familiar with screen based gaming (the original GameBoy and SNES being my first memories of such things), it’s good to be reminded of the fun to be had with simpler technology.

Lo-fi Fun

Charlotte Derry spoke about some amazing user research that she and colleagues had undertaken at Manchester Museum around allowing play to take place in your museum.

Instead of the perhaps more familiar ‘stop that’, ‘put that down’, ‘shush!’ school of public engagement, visitor services staff were encouraged to observe where visitors to the museum were making their own fun and to allow this to happen. They also experimented with simple and cheap activities – making animals and objects out of newspaper and sticky tape or using simple prompts to encourage fun and giggles:

Even better than just doing this research, Charlotte and friends produced a handbook to help other museums do the same.

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Taking Turns

Fran Jeens from the Jewish Museum showed off the fresh-off-the-press games that had been commissioned to promote discussion within school groups that visited the museum.

Teachers take a particular board and set of cards to a particular exhibit in the museum, sit about on cushions and everybody takes turns picking cards that relate facts, ask children to visually inspect the object in detail, pose questions or suggest activities.

This definitely got us thinking about how we might use cards to prompt activities around museum objects in Museum in a Box…

Barriers to play

Sophie Sampson gave a great appraisal of the barriers to playing games in public via observations gleaned from her work as one half of Matheson Marcault.

Having organised large scale gaming events for New Scientist, Somerset House and Kings College London Sophie has had the opportunity to watch people while they are playing all kinds of games but also to observe what it takes to get reluctant gamesters involved (and we’re talking mostly about adults here as kids generally have less inhibitions).

Sophie boiled it down to The Five Elements of the Decision to Play (I’ve added my summary interpretation in italics,  Sophie explained it much better tho…)

  • The Attractor
    “ooh what’s that? looks like it might be fun…”
  • The Invitation
    “hiya, it’s OK to act a bit differently in this space…”
  • The Threshold
    “…beyond here, you are in the game zone, prepare for funz!”
  • The Call and Response
    “Right, now you’re here, this is what you do…”
  • The End
    is the game over? ah, yes, the game is over… one more time?”

So hopefully I’ve not mangled those ideas to much but the main take away for me was that, even if you have a well designed, it’s worth your while thinking about how you invite people to actually play it.

Taking Inspiration from History

Andrea Cunningham & Sophie Sage from the V&A Museum of Childhood took us through the new exhibition Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered which recounts the history of the board game and  ‘celebrate[s] the joy, excitement and occasional frustration of playing board games.’.

The exhibition features all kinds of board games that you can sit down and play, while the exhibition itself can be experienced like a board game:

The exhibition also includes some related events like a dress up family tour as well as a wel attended board game night for grow-ups too… turns out that everyone likes having fun 🙂

At the end of the exhibition patrons can take a ‘board game personality test’ and discover out what kind of board game player they are. Andrea and Sophie invited us to take the test too and it turns out that I’m a Goody Two-Shoes type, always playing by the rules and trying to help everyone get along….

My take away from this section was that you can infuse most things with fun and games and make them more interesting and engaging. The fact there are enough board games for an exhibition in a museum suggests that humans have had an appetite for gaming for quite some time, too.

OK, I’ll leave it there.

There were plenty of other speakers that said interesting things, like

But this  post is already long enough. Suffice to say plenty of people believe in the power of play to engage and enthuse and educate in the cultural heritage sector and there are plenty of examples of it in practice.

A couple of thing I was left wondering about at the end were

  • The purpose of games – are they marketing/headline grabbers for museums? are they a learning tool? what needs do they address for a museum visitor?
  • How you measure success of a game – number of downloads/plays? inferred learning through observation? a written test? a laugh and a smile?

These might not even matter that much as fun is often an end in itself and if you’ve had fun, you might just have learned something along the way.

T.

Beyond the brain

Before I get rambling, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Charlie and I’m the latest addition to the Museum in a Box crew. I spent some time with George and Tom as a visiting researcher shortly after their transition to the new Bloomsbury HQ in the spring; but now spring has sprung and summer is done I’m lucky enough to have joined as Junior Designer and officially one of the team. On with the post!

It’s been a while since we’ve written about the various goings on at Museum in a Box so I’d like to take a moment to break down a few developments of late.

Up until now the product has revolved around two parts: the Brain (the box) and the artefacts, either 3D prints or 2D postcards. The interaction too has remained relatively unchanged with an object placed on the box triggering audio which provides context to its origins and history. The audio content that plays has often been a unique script written and narrated by one of the team, however as a great deal of our focus is on the box being used within the classroom, providing information around an object is only half the interaction. Seeing as each box is powered by a Raspberry Pi we’ve begun to explore new ways that we can use that to ramp up the fun that users can have with the box.

A box that listens?

When we consider how the box may be used in the classroom one important factor is how it can act as an intermediary between pupil and teacher. We’ve seen how well school pupils react and get stuck-in with the box and its objects, so finding a way for that to fit in with lesson plans and teaching is important. In response we’ve started work on a new component, a recorder box which will contain a microphone and aims to compliment the box and its objects.

We’ve had the idea of being able to record to the brain in our minds for some time and we’ve been asked again and again if a record feature is on the cards. Seeing as it had come up in discussion so often we thought it was time to crack on with a spot of prototyping!

Mocking up a cardboard record interface
Mocking up a cardboard record interface

We begun by mocking up a few cardboard interfaces with various button configurations, as well as postcards which could control what mode the box was in but ultimately decided that if the recorder box is plugged in, and an object is placed on the brain, it will switch to ‘record mode’ and announce just that. The box will then issue a count down and allow the user to record their own description of the object with the options to replay, delete and save their recording. This new recording will now play every time that object is ‘booped’ unless a newer recording is made.

A render considering what form a record box could take.
A render considering what form a record box could take.

The recorder box will alter the way we think of the content associated with any given object, instead of it being a predetermined description, by plugging in the recorder the user can create their own customised audio. With the object descriptions essentially in flux the recorder will lend itself very well to classroom activities where teachers could set unique tasks to objects that pupils can then record over with their own responses.

We’re now starting to talk to teachers, and understand who the product is serving and how we see the record box working both inside and outside the classroom: whether it’s museum staff creating activities for visitors or parents recording stories for friends and family, we’re super excited to be prototyping this new tool and will keep you updated as things develop. 

Our first branded hardware!

Over the past nine months or so, we’ve been able to show Museum in a Box to hundreds of people, either in our office or at events, and the response has been fantastic.

It’s also been ongoing informal user research, and we’ve had the chance to watch people figure out how to use it. We’ve varied our description of the mechanics and amount of setup, and observed (very casually) little sticking points. One of the main things we noticed is that it wasn’t clear when the Brain was ready to go. The Raspberry Pi 2 takes a while to start up and get ready to read an object, about 30 seconds, actually. So, we’ve added a physical progress bar to the box to help people know when it’s ready. It even says READY!

Adrian soldered the first version, which you can see here. We also adjusted the layout of the box to simplify it a bit. All you really need to know about is power, volume and when it’s ready.

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And we put a BIG GREEN LIGHT at the end, which is fun.

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I’ve also been thinking about what kind of simple instructions we’ll need to include in a box that doesn’t have us driving it. Hopefully something like this, with just three steps would be good.

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And then, Adrian took a very exciting step and ordered us our very own Printed Circuit Board (PCB) to drive the progress bar from now on.

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It’s possible I’m overexcited about the progress bar, but, I love it!