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

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. 

Bump. Boop!

I just realised we’d set up this blog way back in March 2015. We had no audience then (and don’t have a very big one now, if we’re honest), so the posts were meant as a bit more internal. They might be interesting to you today, and are something of a rough-as-guts archive, so we’ll leave them up.

Lots has happened with the project since then. Here’s a quick timeline:

  • March 2015 – Box 001: Made at Somerset House, under The Small Museum banner
  • October 2015 – Museum in a Box Ltd. incorporated
  • November 2015 – Box 002: On George’s dining room table, paper prototypes examining form and early interaction design ideas
  • December 2015 – Box 003, 004, 005: For public display at the Remix conference at the British Museum. Website V1 online.
  • February 2016 – Box 006: Our first commission! Big Stuff From The British Museum.
  • February 2016 – Gill Wildman joins our Advisory Board
  • March 2016 – First grant applications begin…
  • April 2016 – Nick Stanhope joins our Advisory Board
  • April 2016 – Our first client training session! Martin, Ash, and Ian from the Postal Museum came to the office for an afternoon, and Tom taught them more about Blender. Ask us about training!

photo of the office and trainees

It’s tremendous fun. We’re a Proper Startup too, bootstrapping everything and keeping day jobs and working it out as we go. Right now, we’re thinking about:

  1. Finishing the commission!
  2. Working directly with teachers in classrooms
  3. Partnering with museums around content / box curation
  4. Getting the brain smaller
  5. Building out web editing UIs to help make new boxes quickly
  6. Fundraising, fundraising, fundraising.

We’ll plan to write lots more to the blog. I’ve been missing blogging about all the stuff that’s happening. Call me old school, I guess?