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.

Augmented Reality [AR] Postcards with Augment App

One thing I love about making a 3D scan of an object is that you can do multiple things with the resulting digital data. You can post it online for people to examine in their web browser; you can beam it across the the globe (or into space) to someone with a 3D printer and they can effectively replicate it; you can put it in a video game or VR scene

I wrote a couple of days ago about how the 3D scanning that we conducted for the Cuming Museum – a museum with no building (it burned down) but with enthusiastic staff that help people connect with the surviving collection through events, outreach, the web and social media.

In the video above, you can see the 3D models we made popping up from postcards through the clever tech of an augmented reality (AR) app called Augment.

We first started having fun with this tech at a residency at Somerset House way back in March, 2015 as part of The Small Museum. We used the tool to reveal the true colours and (maybe more significantly) the true scale of a Colossal Foot from the British Musem (of which, it turns out, there are many.)

Read more about those adventures – and the genesis of Museum in a Box – on The Small Museum blog.

The steps you need to go through to work this magic is fairly straightforward – upload your 3D model, indicate it’s size, upload your image, indicate it’s size, associate the two and you’re done. Fire up the Augment app (Android / iOS), point it at your image and – boom! – you’ve got some very cool AR happening in front or your eyes!

You can also have some fun with how the image that triggers (or “trackers” as Augment calls them) the AR relates to the 3D model that pops up. While we simply used a couple of collection images as triggers. In our experiments, an image of the poor giraffe statuette in pieces after the fire to trigger 3D of the lovely complete version after careful conservation. The 3D scan of a poor malnourished tiger’s skull from the long defunct Surrey Zoological gardens is triggered by an illustration showing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visiting the Surrey Zoological Gardens in 1848 – complete with wholly unsafe jack russel terrier in the cage!

By by playing with the combination of image and associated 3D, you can help tell an artefact’s without any words. Of course if you add words and sounds you’ll be hitting all kinds of learning styles. Plenty to explore here….

Try it yourself, print off the images below at A5 size and scan them with the Augment app!

T.

Making a Box that reflects the content

 

The paradigm that Museum in a Box uses to connect objects to related content is simple:

  1. Take a Thing.
  2. Put that Thing on a Brain.
  3. Receive lovely and interesting Content.

You can think of Things in the above scenario as ‘keys’ that unlock the context to the object you’re looking at. Sometimes the Thing is a 3D print of a scanned artefact, sometimes it’s a picture postcard and sometimes it’s fun to leave things a bit ambiguous – what is the Thing you’re holding? How does it relate to the Content you’re listening to?

This is what we explored a bit with Prototype No.13, which you can watch a demo of in the above video.

For this Box, we used some public domain audio from The Internet Archive as the Content and decided to try out a form factor for the Things that reflected what you would be listening to but still leaves a lot to the imagination…

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So in case you’ve not guessed yet, we used the Planets Suite by Gustav Holst for this Box, hence our spherical Content keys/triggers. We sourced some half-spheres of  birchwood from eBay, as this seemed like the easiest way to get an RFID tag inside a globe shape. Polystyrene may have been cheaper but we like the look and feel of the plain wood. We slapped an RFID sticker on one half and used wood glue to join this to its counterpart.

Making this prototype was also a good exercise in testing the limits of our tech. It turns out that smaller RFID tags have (maybe unsurprisingly) a shorter pickup range when offered up to the RFID reader we’re currently using. In a quick test, the small tag would not trigger the audio when housed in our 32mm diameter balls (so their range is less than 17mm). Fortunately, upgrading to 25mm tags extended the range of our wee planets to about 2 or 3cm. We also found out that tags only register on the reader if offered in a near parallel orientation (as in the GIF above).

We re-purposed a gift box to house our Raspberry Pi, tag reader, battery, audio speaker & cables and made a simple insert  with holes to hold the planets in a nice formation and another to suspend them over the RFID reader. (Extra special thanks to my partner and her mum for helping with this!)

All in all creating this Box only took about half a day and we’re very pleased with the results 🙂

T.

How to visit a Museum which isn’t there…


Read more about The Last Giraffe of Walworth on the Southwark Heritage Blog

We’ve been doing some more 3D scanning, this time for the Cuming Museum – a museum based in South London, UK.

Interested in exploring new ways to engage people with the museum’s collection, Judy Aitkin, Heritage Manager for Southwark, contacted Museum in a Box about the possibilities of producing “something 360” for their re-vamped website.

We were, of course, happy to help and paid a visit to their stores to take some 1600 photos of 10 objects from across the museum’s collection…

A Museum With No Public Premises

The Cuming Museum is an interesting case in Museumland – it’s a museum that (currently) has no physical premises. No galleries, no cloakroom, no café – all of these were the unfortunate victims of a fire in 2013 that severely damaged the lovely red brick Town Hall building on Walworth Road that housed the Cuming family collection and artefacts relating to the history of the Borough of Southwark.

Despite not currently having a physical museum to manage, Judy and her team are doing a great job keeping the Museum’s audience up to date via the Southwark Heritage website, Twitter, Pinterest and blog as well as through regular heritage events.

Visit the Cuming Museum’s Sketchfab profile to explore some pretty amazing objects and even download them  to use for non-commercial projects!

If you work at a museum or heritage institution and are interested in learning how to make 3D scans or need something scanned, please get in touch.

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. 

Traveling the world via 3D models…

Around-The-World-graph-2

Tom’s done some more writing for our friends over at Sketchfab – this time looking at one of the first 3D scans he produced for the British Museum. It’s part of a series of posts organised by cultural heritage researchers and fellow 3D scanners Abby and Néstor that travels the world one 3D model at a time!

Sharing three dimensional proxies for ancient artifacts online was one of the things that first got us thinking about how we could share the amazing objects museums and other institutions have in their galleries (and vast storage) with people across the world who might not be able to visit a particular museum in real life…

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!

Big Stuff Arrangements

One of my favourite things about museums in boxes is that whoever is looking at the stuff can arrange them however they like.

Even in our very first version, on the very first day, all we did was arrange the stuff. It was interesting to arrange them by the date they were made, and the date they were acquired by the museum. We also mapped them geographically too.

Here’s the display we made that day:

The Small Museum Version One
Untitled
The Small Museum Version One

We’re working on our first commission – Woo! – and it’s a set of Big Stuff from the British Museum. You can obviously arrange them by size, but also when they were made, and when they were acquired. (Note that the human-sized figure is the box commissioner’s wife, and not part of the British Museum’s collection.)

arrangements

Fun to think about how these sorts of arrangements could be transformed into different information. At the moment, our boxes have a single point of contact, but there could be many. Maybe you can arrange the objects to get different stories.

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?