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

Au revoir, Tom

It’s with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to our brilliant compadre, Thomas Flynn.

Tom and I began working together back in March of 2015 as we made The Small Museum V1 together with Harriet Maxwell. I was immediately impressed by his talent, care and thoroughness. When I incorporated the company in October 2015, it was a no-brainer to ask Tom to join me as co-founder.

He’s so good, in fact, he was offered a job too good to refuse by the crew at Sketchfab. We wish him all the best leading their growing Cultural Heritage program.

Tom, we’ll miss your warmth and talent, and we couldn’t have come so far without you, mate. Thank you.

Here’s a link to Tom’s Sketchfab profile, in case you’d like to follow what he’s up to over there. We certainly will be!

Museum in a Box in print!

A little while back, Alex Bate from the Raspberry Pi Foundation discovered us through The Planets box Tom made over a weekend to experiment with a new object form factor, and public domain content, Holst’s The Planets.

Box Prototype No.13 – The Planets from Museum in a Box on Vimeo.

It was lovely to get a note from Alex wanting to find out more, and even better to host her at our office to meet and talk about everything, and write an article for MagPi, the magazine published by the Foundation.

cover of MagPi issue 54But, what was absolutely the best and a thrill for this little crew, was to walk across the street to the local newsagent and buy as many copies of MagPi #54, and turn to the amazing four-page spread Alex wrote about us!!

MagPi at the office!

And as a special bonus, Alex also included an image in the article that can trigger one of our Augmented Reality experiments!

So, thanks to Alex, Raspberry Pi and MagPi for this brilliant article! (I’ve sent a copy to my parents.) 🙂

Talking to Teachers

IMG_4540Putting boxes in front of people in the big wide world is very important because it allows us to find out exactly what does and doesn’t work. We make regular efforts to reach out to both teachers and pupils to figure out how best we can evolve and design the product to fit the needs of the classroom.

Back in November I (Charlie) joined a group of teachers, part of the East Sussex History Network at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex, to introduce them to Museum in a Box, learn about their own teaching methods and hear how they envisage the product benefiting their classroom activities. I had visited the school previously to demo a box during a history class which resulted in a lot of excited year seven pupils so it was an intriguing prospect to see whether the teachers would respond with equal enthusiasm!

In short I was overwhelmed by the positive reaction to the box and it was great to see the teachers coming up with imaginative ways they would use a box and its content as part of a wider community of History teachers. Here’s a short list of the takeaways from the meeting:

  • Age range – the teachers strongly believed that a box could easily sit across any year group and would be particularly effective for those doing their GCSEs in Key Stage 4 and even 5. This was particularly in view of the box being used for revision to revisit teaching material without having to search through a text book. One teacher said in response “my sixth formers would love this”.
  • Path to purchase – how the schools would get hold of a box and content came up several times particularly considering different budgeting options available to them to acquire teaching materials. The teachers who were from different schools suggested the idea of sharing ‘boopable’ content amongst themselves given they already have a channel of communication established between the network and commonality of teaching topics.
  • Home-made material – responses to where they currently source their physical teaching material and prompts included: museum shops, car boot sales and ebay with ‘a desperate need for [supplementary resources] for GCSE’. This was furthered by a discussion about teachers using a customisable box to record their own descriptions to objects and maybe even add tags to objects they have collected themselves. 
  • Record-ability – is a primary interest for teachers to design classroom activities with a box on every table.
  • Class activities – How boxes could be positioned around the classroom was raised several times providing a means for pupils to explore the content for themselves, moving around the tables to hear a different topic or account of an event of period in history.
  • Sourcing objects – There are currently only a limited number of services to acquire physical objects for the classroom, however the ability to loan sets of objects for a whole term from some provides greater flexibility to when topics can be taught.
  • Basic lessons plans – as a starting point it would be useful to have simple lesson plans, teachers would adapt to their classrooms as and when they see fit.
  • Different levels of access – “Having mutli-versions of the same materials at different levels of depth would be very helpful, so there is the same material pitched easily… but they use language and an insight that’s more sophisticated or broad or much more simplified and basic.”

It was a great session and I’m great to all the teachers of the East Sussex History Network. That’s all for now!

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!

Developing an educational strategy

We’re a core team of designers. We’re not trained educators. While each of us has had quite a bit of exposure to museums, from within and without, and indeed have taught, both kids and adults, with Museum in a Box, we’re trying to improve on a very old idea, of museums’ handling collections being used as learning aids. That’s meant a crash course in the vast landscape of education. Boy, is it HUGE.

Fairly early on, I came up with a matrix-y thing to illustrate what I think are the main segments that our boxes might fit into. You can see it’s a combination of finished or DIY boxes, in a classroom or retail environment.

So, you have a spectrum between a finished box and a DIY box, and you might find one of these in either a classroom, or a retail space like a museum shop.

finished box might contain objects and their stories that are very directly tied to a specific curriculum area and its learning outcomes. This box might be targeted towards younger students, or at least written/designed for a specific age group or key stage.

A DIY box might be used as a teaching device for slightly older students, perhaps high school age, who are starting to dive deep into design/tech subject areas. In this case, you might not purchase anything physical, but only digital and schematic things. Students would put together the entire thing, from configuring the Brain, to writing the content, to producing the content, to printing the objects, to making the container, etc. We like this approach because the kids could learn a thing or two about history or art or science as they’re constructing a product. It feels like great cross-pollinatory learning, and the teachers we’ve talked about it agree.

You could see either of these boxes also existing in a retail environment. We’d love to make a box to accompany an exhibition, so instead of that spectacularly unsatisfying experience of only being about to buy one or two postcards of what you’ve just seen, you could buy a box that lets you delve deep into every aspect of the exhibition, including perhaps even how it was made. You take it back home and can spend time. We also like imagining this type of box in a pre/visit/post context… maybe the box could be sent to schools before the students visit your museum, so they can be familiar with what they’ll see before they arrive. Once they’ve come and seen things, they could produce their own impressions of it all, and make their Museum in a Box play that instead of the Official Point of View.

Personally, I’m also curious about the collision of Museum in a Box with Design/Tech because, to me at least, it feels like lots of the tech projects out there suffer a little from a lack of content, or that it’s engineering for engineering’s sake? But, then you watch videos of kids making electric guitars with a  micro:bit and maybe that proves me wrong in an instant.

Each of these types of boxes and their associated activities and work leads me to a concept we bumped into in the course of last year. As we were working with Sara Cardello, Education Specialist at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, on a pilot partnership, we discovered the idea of 21st Century Skills. As I understand it, the general initiative was formed in 2002, as a coalition of the business community, education leaders and policymakers who were determined to:

[put] 21st century readiness at the centre of US K-12 education and to kick-start a national conversation on the importance of 21st century skills for all students.

Framework for 21st Century Learning

While there is certainly still emphasis placed on “mastery of fundamental subjects” like English or Maths, 21st century themes are introduced too, around information / media / tech, learning and innovation (and importantly, improvisation), and broader life/career skills.

It’s about setting students on a course to build muscles around things like cogent reasoning, evidence collection, critical thinking and analytical communication, all of which are surely useful when it comes to investigating cultural description and points of view generated in certain context.

  • You can see the skills outlined in the P21 Framework. There’s a ton of documentation on the site too. Lots to explore.

3D Museums: Tactile learning, greater access

Over the last year or so, we’ve also been steadily learning more about object-based learning, and we think it fits in especially well with the overall tenets of 21st century skills, combined with Museum in a Box. Object-based learning is used at the British Museum too, with school groups that come to visit. With thanks to Lizzie Edwards for sharing her knowledge in this area with us.

The main benefits of using objects in learning, according to UCL Museums and Collections, are that they:

  • provide a direct link with a topic or ‘the past’ and can really enhance young people’s interest in and understanding of a topic/subject.
  • encourage learners to use all their senses – especially touch, sight and smell.
  • help to develop the important skill of drawing conclusions based on an examination of evidence, together with an understanding of the limitations and reliability of evidence.
  • are ideal for generating group and class discussion.
  • promote the value of museums and encourage young people to visit museums and galleries with their families to further their learning.

One of the diagrams I found in my research is a handy glanceable thing to help you quickly understand that object-based learning is about asking interesting questions of an object, from lots of different angles… This diagram has been recreated — mostly so it fitted in with the colour scheme of a presentation I was giving! — from the superb report (in PDF format): Learning Through Culture: The DfES Museums and Galleries Education Programme: A guide to good practice (2002)

I presented these rough ideas in Brussels in late November at the Faro’s “Heritage, virtual and augmented” conference. Here are the slides (or a version with presenter notes):

Bright Lights

We continue to research and look to leaders in innovative learning around the world as we ourselves try to learn more about how Museum in a Box can actually help museum educators and teachers, and not hinder them,

We find ourselves studying systems like:

  • diy.org – “DIY is a safe online community for kids to discover new passions, level up their skills, and meet fearless geeks just like them.” Who says education can’t co-exist with creativity??
  • Technology Will Save Us – We’ve been especially impressed by the generosity of the TWSU Education folks. All their stuff in published online, and let me tell you, we’ve been studying it! 🙂
  • AltSchool – “creating a 21st century work environment for our educators”, “supporting, rather than disempowering, with technology”.

There’s a long way to go, but broadly speaking we’re liking the feel of a framework that blends object-based learning and 21st century skills as our starting point.

We’ve already written a job description for an Education Producer – we know it’s a gap – but happily learning about this new, huge environment in the meantime. If you know of a good group or person who might be interested to fund a position like that (maybe a contract to the tune of £10k?) then please tell us who we should talk to!

 

Ramesses in a Ramesses #DesignByCapture

MyMiniFactory, Autodesk ReMake, and Autodesk® Fusion 360 recently hosted a competition aimed at demonstrating the potential of their platforms to integrate photogrammetry into the design process.

The competition asked entrants to capture and modify an object that they use for their ‘favourite hobby’. We considered adapting a piece of our photography kit used for photogrammetry but opted instead for a more playful approach and hacked a scan of Ramesses II, one of the largest sculptures in the British Museum:

Next we were required to customise it to best suit our needs, it may seem surprising but we have quite a few 3D prints hanging around our Bloomsbury HQ yet few cool places to store them. Cue light bulb moment, why not make a giant Ramesses and use him to store a bunch of smaller prints!

We identified six scans that we could place within niches inside the big Ramesses including a smaller Ramesses bust (Ramception) and then got to work using Fusion 360 to modify the original scan.

First we had to reduce the polycount in order to open and edit the sculpture in Fusion which was then swiftly sliced in half. A hinge was then created by extruding a circle into a cylinder and splitting it into five parts which were then alternately combined to the front and back bodies. We also modelled a simple pin to lock the two halves together completing the hinge that would enable the secret stash of models to be opened and closed.

Ramesses Fusion 360 development

The final steps involved scaling-down and reducing the polycount of the six smaller models and positioning them where best, then all that remained was to trace a rough outline of each onto the flat plane, cut away each niche and insert the models.

We were fairly chuffed with the outcome especially when we threw on a jade material layer and rendered it through Fusion’s cloud rendering service. Content, we uploaded the model to MyMiniFactory and entered the competition.

Shiny jade render of Ramesses II

Unfortunately we didn’t win the competition otherwise we would almost certainly have our heads buried in VR right now but nevertheless we’re very happy with the outcome and the awesome job MyMiniFactory did of printing it!

ramsses-museum

3D Printed with a working hinge!

(Print images by MyMiniFactory)

It may not be jade but it’s still pretty swanky

C

#3D4ever

Last week, whilst George and Tom were attempting to reach #VHNIreland I was having slightly more luck arriving at the Wellcome Collection for the ‘3D4ever: building three dimensional models to last’ conference.

The conference focused around the long-term durability and accessibility of 3D models and scan data for future uses, uses which as we discovered in some of the talks may not be immediately obvious. I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on a few thoughts and favourite take-aways.

Having a good understanding of photogrammetry (primarily by probing Tom for tips and tricks) I opted to skip the workshops and stick with talks for the whole day, it was intense but informative and an eye-opener into a community that I didn’t even know really existed! So… a few highlights:

Stuart Jeffrey from the Glasgow School of Art (GSA) discussed a use-case where an old 3D model of the GSA Mackintosh Building which suffered severe fire damage in 2014 provided evidence that a substantial lean on the West gable wall was historic and had not come about as a result of the fire. Members of the GSA Digital Design Studio produced a second model the day after the fire to compare the lean and save a large portion of the building from demolition an impressive feat and one which illustrated the importance of making good data accessible in the long-term.

Stuart Jeffrey from GSA

Anthony Corns from the Discovery Programme talked about his experiences of archiving and reusing 3D data as well as the steps and software involved in the creation of a model. One slide showed a standard software stack consisting of about 12 programmes which was somewhat surprising, working with Tom to process various models I am slowly but surely becoming aware and familiar with the wide range of tools out there.

Anthony also spoke about using scan data to asses pressure on different sites his example being Skellig Michael which has witnessed a surge in tourist numbers since Luke Skywalker decided to hang there in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This also demonstrated when are where it may be appropriate to sell 3D data such as to film/production crews.

 

Chris Moran who heads the Wellcome Trust legal team gave an insightful talk on Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) an area where people often become a little tangled. I was listening from a design perspective so it was interesting to see examples where cases had been argued and won based on the potentially loose definitions of what constitutes something as an ‘original creation’ or even a database, his example being a newspaper’s website. Star Wars references were also utilised here in the form of the IP rights of a Stormtrooper’s helmet… I sense a pattern developing.

IP Rights with Chris Moran

Vincent Rossi and Jon Blundell of the Smithsonian appeared via Skype to discuss their work on digitisation and also show off their amazing work on the Apollo 11 command module ‘Columbia’ check it out here.

Vincent Rossi and Jon Blundell all the way from America

I had the opportunity to ask a question to our speakers from across the pond which was kinda cool!

Finally perhaps the most insightful moment was the final ‘Round-up chat’. Here following a panel chat the audience were invited to reflect on: what is to be done and how to address the gaps in our knowledge?

A final panel chat

It was clear there was a desire for good collaborative practise and several rousing speeches were made, there was a great deal to get off the chest! A key agreement was that to work with better tools and formats, instead of trying to create new ones, complain about a lack of essential features, and live in fear of formats going extinct, why not establish a line of communication with the developers and those behind the existing platforms. The software stack slide that Anthony showed sprung to mind and it became apparent there was a need for openness and better communication between all parties involved in 3D work not just in the short term and not just for individuals and independent organisations but the community as a whole.

What a day, mind blown!

C

Failure to get to Cork = virtual presentation for #vhnireland

Last Friday, Tom and I had the best intentions in the world of presenting to the attendees of Virtual Heritage Network Ireland in Cork. We were all set to talk about Letting Objects Speak for Themselves, and show folks some working boxes. It was also going to be my first visit to Ireland! But, our journey ended at Stansted, after a remarkable slurry of travel woes I shan’t bore you with. Suffice it to say that everything that could have gone wrong, did.

With our tails between our legs, Tom and I knew we wanted to send something in our place, so we headed back to HQ to see if we could make a video version of what we’d planned to talk about. Fate steps in again – we’d both not brought our office keys! (And Charlie was off at the Wellcome’s 3d4ever meeting!) Gah!

Luckily, the little office next door was open, so we were able to suck the office wifi, and we put together a version of what we would have said on stage to send over. Phew!

Museum in a Box – Letting Objects Speak for Themselves – VHN Ireland from Museum in a Box on Vimeo.

We were very happy to watch people via Twitter telling us they enjoyed it. A soothing balm after a shitty day, and overall, a helpful result!

 

Thanks for the kind words, everyone!

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. 

img_8844

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