Now that we’re shipping Museduino, who & what is it for, again?
It takes a lot of people to ship anything, especially hardware. So huge thanks to our development group: Stan, Rianne, Miles and Bresdin, who worked tirelessly on design, testing, support documentation, stickers and packing. Gratitude to Mimi — our partner at the NM Dept of Cultural Affairs, Mary, who does all of our purchase orders & budgeting, and Alicia, the master solderer at BiRa. Full documentation, kit orders, tutorials & schematics are at museduino.wordpress.com.
Before we even drafted schematics for the first Museduino board, I had to convince a few people that this project (a side project of a side project), was worth pursuing. Even if we just wanted to satisfy our curiousity. We kept hoping that someone would come along, make what we wanted, and save us the effort, but that didn’t happen. Here’s my original post about its conceptual origins.
Part 1: Side Project of a Side Project
Luckily for us, we’d done enough work on the first side project, a comparitive side-by-side set of charts and graphs on the most popular microcontrollers, to know what we wanted for Museduino. We reviewed arduinos (of all types), as well as Beagleboards, Freescale, RedBear, Galileo (and a few more obscure boards) to get a sense of what each board aimed to be, its strengths & weaknesses, I/O, the quality of their development environments, and perhaps most importantly: how devoted was the user community, and how steep was the learning curve? These are the algorithms we developed. Don’t they look serious?
We were graphing how to recommend specific microcontrollers to our cultural partners. Often, in workshops, conferences, or just casually, we’d be asked, “I want to build something that does X, the visitor(s) do Y, and somewhere else, there is an output of Z. What should I use?” Miles had some fun creating our “Which Microcontroller Are You?” quiz, to let people get a quick sense of why they might choose one over the other. While it was amusing, it was just a start.
Our goal was to get cultural sector people — those developing for museums or creating installations in public places, to consider low-cost, off-the-shelf microcontrollers as an option to be deployed past the prototyping phase, for a final installation without too much difficulty. At the very least, we hoped it would solve our own recurring problem - covering long distances between sensors and actuators, minimizing data and voltage drops, and solving issues around robustness and stability in public and in the gallery, over long periods of time.
Part 2: Building the Shield & Boards for Use by Actual People:
Then began the period of prioritizing the Museduino’s features. How to design this system to meet our requirements: open, scalable, extensive and robust, allowing room for users to make modifications and use it as a starting point for further development. Things we cared about: each satellite board should have the features of the arduino pins, with options that would allow for external power, ~pwm, analog & digital I/O, and allow daisy chaining. It seemed straightforward, until we discussed about how small they should be, while having to add on-board resistors, MOSFETS, and switches, leds, and ports for the RJ45 connectors.
The basic idea is simple: A shield fits on to the microcontroller (Arduino Uno, our favorite for cost & robustness, works best, although several other microcontrollers meet the configuration standards) and is split four ways using RJ45 connectors & CAT5 cable- creating a 4-tentacled ‘creature’. Each cable connects to a satellite board at a length of up to 100 ft (30 m) — either a ‘smorgasboard’ with more I/O and no external power, or the boringly named ‘external power’ board.
The shield divides the pins, allows users to extend components away from the “brain” for long distances in 4 directions (disgression: like the Zia sun symbol on our beautiful NM state flag!). For example, we re-engineered our steampunky pneumatic tube system- instead of having an arduino at both hubs, we have one shield and two smorgasboards. If anything happens to a satellite board, unclick, snap in a new one- the original programming is safe on the Uno, under the Museduino shield.
It has made assembling and disassembling much easier(if you disregard the fact that Miles climbed up in to the acoustic tiles to send the tubes through the ceiling to begin with).
In these last days of summer, we’re installing Museduino-based interactives for a model railroad exhibit at the Carlsbad Museum, a shore life exhibit at Acadia National Park in Maine, and a pneumatic tube installation* at a friend’s vacation rental, so visitors can order coffee & crepes from his adjacent restaurant (not all museums, but still art!).
Museduino- it’s for anyone who wants robust electronics in their exhibits, art, performance or AirBnB space!
Shipping functioning hardware -well, it wasn’t simple. When we started talking about the Museduino, it was November, 2014. I had been an open hardware consumer/educator for over 10 years, but I never considered that we would make our own design. In my original post, I wrote that we came up with the idea to solve our own recurring problems with distance and robustness, and if anyone else could use it, that would be even better.
That post was 9 months ago. The first board was printed (we print at ExpressPCB in Oregon) in late January, and we shipped our first kits (7th printing) to testers on August 10th. We shipped only 5 kits, which include the main shield, 3 satellite boards, 3 cables and the requisite stickers and temporary tattoos.
These kits went to our friends the beta testers— Micah at the Cooper Hewitt, Veronica at Columbia Teachers College, Chris for an installation at Machine Project, Seth at Stamps School of Design/University of Michigan and Mike Kelly, for his projects for the National Park Service. (Thanks, everyone! Now get to work, we need data!)
We’re currently packaging kits for our workshop at ASTC, (in Montreal, in October). The workshop is filled & I’m hoping for lots of feedback from the participants. I also hope they take theirs home and test them enthusiastically in their own institutions, organizations, houses, garages, labs and/or classrooms.
I leave you with the haiku from our current board (2.0 — written by Bresdin), although each new version gets its own:
From a doorknob, on a string
The perfect CAT toy
Have something to say about open hardware for exhibits & installations? I’d love that.
*No mention of the pneumatic tubes is complete without thanking our original collaborators in steampunk-vaccuum tube-awesomeness, Chris Weisbart & Michael Wilson.