Technology is a tool, not our master

When people see and try a Museum in a Box for the first time, after they’ve been charmed by the magic and wizardry, they’ll often ask how does it work?

Once we start down that line of conversation, it also doesn’t take too long before people ask have you patented this?

The fun part is, we tell people exactly how it works. It’s a combination of Near Field Communication (NFC), a Raspberry Pi, and a few other bits and bobs, which we happily explain.

Illustration of main components, by Charlie Cattel-Killick, February 2018

We’ve also made boxes out of transparent acrylic so you can see exactly how it works. I was chuffed when I handed one of our transparent boxes to my nephew, Alex, and he was able to identify, describe, and connect each of the hardware components into the whole. And I’m not just saying that because he’s family. I was genuinely impressed.

A transparent box alongside one of our early physical prototypes for our new internal layout

In one of our recent commissions, with Monroe County History Center, we loved hearing that they thought a transparent Box in particular would be of interest to their community. The commission was about developing reminiscence collections for folks suffering from dementia and their carers, and quite a few of the men in the programme had an engineering background, so we hoped there’d be interest in the device itself, as well as the 1960s.

We also want to make our design available in an open format so students can literally make their own boxes too. I suspect we’ll end up doing this with one of our early designs which maker spaces or classrooms may have the components to hand to fabricate their own Box. As we’re marching towards higher production volumes, that’s meant developing internals that are much quicker to assemble, and can be made in large volumes. We are developing a Make Your Own kit version this year, so far focussed on the content side of things – like choosing and digitising objects, writing and recording their stories – but we’ve always hoped to extend Make Your Own to include the hardware piece too.

That brings me to our newest design innovation, which relates to our new and improved printed circuit board (PCB). Instead of us hand-crafting the internals – because I should never be making wiring looms! – we’ve now got a super-slick, all-encompassing PCB which incorporates and unifies the amplifier, digital-to-analog audio conversion, power for the Box, our physical progress bar, and allows us to add a real-time clock to help us manage and record when objects are booped.

As Adrian and I chipped away on the PCB layout, I found myself unable to recognise or interpret what all the wiring bits actually were, and needed Adrian to label them for me. Then it dawned on me. Why not label them for everyone? Why not explain transparently exactly what each bit does? So, I designed cheeky labels for each of the main components, so you can familiarise yourself with it all.

Illustrated PCB
Our shiny new annotated PCB!
Blinky lights!!!!

We’ve also redesigned how the Box opens up, to make it easier to pull the guts out and have a look. People – often men, interestingly – tell us “but you could just do this with a phone”, and we nod politely and say yes, you could. But, a) that’s just another screen in your life, b) you can’t just pull your phone apart to understand how it works, c) we want the Box itself to be part of the experience, and d) it is also an educational element of the whole idea.

I’m still not sure if we’ll patent the hardware design, but I at least wanted to establish a state of the art on the annotation-on-the-thing idea with this blog post. That might mean we get totally stiffed by some giant megacorp, which would obviously SUCK, but, I prefer to radiate generous intent.

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