It’s been a while in the works, but things are looking very good to build out our biggest run yet: 100 Boxes!
It was our goal this year to figure out how to make 1,000 Boxes, and, well, even though we’ll probably only build 100, that work has allowed us to understand and have a way forward to making Boxes much, much more quickly.
Charlie has done the lion’s share of the work associated with making the “skull” or exterior casing of the Box even better. The shape itself has been simplified and optimised so it’s much quicker to assemble. We were lucky enough to have a hardy bunch of volunteers from Verizon Media help us build 100 skulls in a day a few weeks ago. The first time we made skulls, it took about a day to make three.
The Brain is what we’ve always called what’s inside the Box… the electronics. Here is where we’ve done a ton of optimising… and revealing the tech. Before, we would have gathered all the various electronic components from all over the place, from wires to resistors to washers to everything. We assembled them by hand here at HQ.
But now, we have our very own PCB design, largely laid out by Adrian with a few design touches from me, and it’s a thing of beauty, and, importantly, not made by us, but by trained professionals at European Circuits.
And here’s Charlie turning it on, mere moments ago.
The very best part is that we’re still on our production schedule track to make the 100 Boxes next week, and then SELL THEM ON THE INTERNET.
We have our shop online now, at shop.museuminabox.org, so if you’ve been wanting to buy a Make Your Own kit, or a Museum in a Box tote bag, or even our Greek Gods & Goddesses collection (although you’ll need a Box to play that), now’s your chance!
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.
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.
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.
The Jewish Museum London (JML) commissioned a Box from us last year, about remembering Jewish people who served in WWI and WWII.
They got in touch with us again this year to see about doing an upgrade of their Box – our first upgrade!
Since we delivered the initial commission, the Box’s core design has seen some important changes, and in fact, we declared V1.0 of the physical design back in February this year. We’ve also been gradually improving the software that runs the core Box interactions, so this was a good chance to upgrade the code on the JML Box while we were poking around.
The plywood ‘skull’ has been simplified with the speaker and power jacks now exposed on the back of the box, along with access to one of the Pi’s USB ports. (We’re not sure what we want to do with that yet. One idea is to incorporate a microphone into the mix.)
Most of the previous perforations across the older ‘skull’ have now been filled in, to focus the sound (so it doesn’t just bounce around inside the box), and most importantly,
We’ve replaced the old tiny stereo speakers with one beefy new mono one (see below)!
So, to do the upgrade, we took back the museum’s old Box, gutted it, reusing what we could before cutting them a new V1.0 Box in plywood, reconstructing it with the new sound components, and handing it back.
Jewish Museum team checking out the box
The original 2017 box
The upgraded box!
There were two other important aspects of the upgrade: the audio clips and the software. The museum had tested their Box in schools and found the audio was too long. We’ve been evaluating this challenge across all the Collections we’ve made, and developing a much better understanding about audio duration and content types that work really well with young children. Our main conclusion is – perhaps unsurprisingly – if clips are too long people begin to disengage and switch off. Therefore, the museum trimmed some of their lengthier tracks down and we republished them to the Box.
Now, with WiFi!
It’s now possible to configure each Box in situ to get on to a WiFi network, so we made the cheeky addition inside the shiny new packaging – a WiFi card! The card allows the box to connect to a local WiFi network with the assistance of a smartphone, tablet or computer.
The upgrade gave us the opportunity to test the new wifi configuration out in the wild for the first time as well as update the shortened audio tracks onsite using the museum’s WiFi. Once the box was online, and after a little troubleshooting had been done, the box automatically pulled down and updated the new audio tracks!
What WiFi means for the future
Upgrading the Jewish Museum London’s box has been a great testbed for us to learn how we can retro-fit and improve upon older boxes as well as provide on-site updates to content without the need for physical intervention from us- this is an exciting development that’s heading towards our long term goal, where we can offer subscriptions to people who have Boxes. Say you like Natural History” and you subscribe, every month (or so), you get a new set of things delivered from museums all over the world, and your Box just knows about the new set of things because we’ve been able to update it in the background.
Huge thanks to the JML crew for inquiring about the upgrade and for being patient while we figured out a method of best practice!
In preparation we’ve spent a bit of time working on new packaging for what we refer to as the ‘starter box’ because it contains: the brain, an introductory print, and a mains plug; everything you need to get started! Previous versions have been bulky and wasted space which can make travelling with the box more challenging than it need be. We wrote exactly a year ago (gosh!) about our visit to MOO HQ where we worked on packaging ideas with their product design team and having now spent some time designing a new box we wanted to share a brief overview of our packaging evolution and developments:
December 2015: Early brain prototype combined with the statues of women around London set. We later decided to separate the brain into an independent starter box because the variation of possible 3D prints and postcards in the box is so great. This gives us more freedom now when packaging up each unique collection.
November 2016: An experiment developed with Moo Ltd using their plotter machine and a square brain. This included a space for a set of NFC cards.
February 2017: Starter box comprised of many laser cut layers of card. Solid but used an unnecessary amount of material, was heavy and there was a great deal of wasted space.
July 2017: Stacked foam insert, the brain sits above the starter introductory print and plug. We liked this foam design but for small quantities we’d need to laser cut and stack multiple layers which is both time consuming and costly.
In this new design the brain sits above the insert, when you remove the brain the plug and print tucked away underneath are revealed.
We adapted the foam design to allow for the slightly bulkier Rasperry Pi plug. Doing this means we could easily change the plug type and send a starter box to almost anywhere in the world without the need for an adapter… it’s the small things that count!
The box is made out of three parts: the box itself (a), the insert (b) and the tray (c) glued to the underside of the insert. The real challenge was designing an insert that works with the many different plug adapters of the Raspberry Pi universal plug!
The packaging is a great improvement on the older bulky and heavy box making it much better for sending in the post. Having travelled around with this new box however, we’re now thinking we can make it smaller still!
Hopefully this has been a brief but insightful overview for any packaging nerds out there!
Last week Charlie hopped on a train up to Liverpool to hang out with our tech lead Adrian, here’s an account of what he got up to:
Having never been to Liverpool before I jumped at the chance to make the two or so hour train ride to visit Adrian who is based at DoES Liverpool, a maker space which he co-founded in 2011.
On arrival I was introduced to all of the friendly faces, claimed a desk and set my intro music to a piece by Frédéric Chopin (the space is rigged to play an audio file when you ‘tap-in’ in the morning). I was also introduced to the talking fridge, the gesture bin and the internet-connected coffee machine. Welcome to the wonderful world of DoES Liverpool!
The space is divided between the co-working space and the workshop which has a wealth of kit including two laser cutters (Gerald & Sophia) and several 3D printers. I arrived with a list of things I wanted to get done and so wasted no time with cracking on.
One experiment I had a chance to play with and develop was a cardboard Museum in a Box. I’d prepped a flimsy mock-up in London and was pretty chuffed with the outcome so decided to refine a neater version in the workshop at DoES. This was also a useful opportunity to try out a different internal configuration and a new way to access the tech inside the box.
Being a bit of an architecture enthusiast, spending time in Liverpool was a dream because the buildings vividly tell the story of a busy port city, its development and importance at the time of its height in the British Empire. I’ve dreamed of an ‘architectural box’ for some time now and a tour around the docks provided the inspiration to start just that. Towns and cities across England are littered with great lessons and examples of great architecture but unless you can decode what you are looking at it’s hard to truly interpret and appreciate it. The author and illustrator Matthew Rice says it nicely:
‘Once you can speak any language, conversations can begin, but without it communications can only be brief and brutish. The same is the case with Architecture: an inability to describe the component parts of a building leaves one tongue-tied and unable to begin to discuss what is or is not exciting, dull or peculiar about it.’
Garstang Museum of Archaeology
Adrian and I managed to squeeze in a trip to the Garstang Museum, a museum named after Professor John Garstang, who founded the ‘Institute of Archaeology’ and associated museum in 1904.
Despite its modest size it’s packed with fascinating objects, most of which were excavated by Garstang in Egypt, the Sudan, and the Near East; the collection also contains almost twenty collections of glass-plate negatives relating to Garstang’s archaeological work in these areas. Several of the images have been enlarged and line the walls of the museum providing a fantastic insight into the world of archaeology in the early 20th century.
Something that struck me was the amazing collection of Shabti that are on display in one of the exhibition spaces. Shabti were funerary figures who accompanied the deceased to the after-life, left alongside them inside their tombs. The poorest people may not have had any but even those tombs of modest size would have contained at least one or two Shabti. Those on display in the museum clearly show the range of Shabti and their corresponding value because of the materials used (wood, stone and faience) and their size (from ~10mm up to ~30cm), it was great to see such a diverse representation of people come together within one display case.
If you’re in Liverpool and have a spare hour I can absolutely recommend heading to the Garstang but be sure to plan carefully as the museum only opens on between 10am-4pm every Wednesday.
Back at DoES I was really enjoying being able to work on an idea in one room and nip next door to quickly mock-up a prototype in the workshop so much so that I was still laser-cutting minutes before having to leave to catch a train back to London. I was able to work on and develop some fun ideas including an architecture box which I’ll share some more info on in due course. Thank you Liverpool!
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
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.
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).
Original glued power socket
New panel mount power socket
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!