Our 7th exhibit in the schedule was a last minute addition to the list for the Curiosity Zone. Our original idea filling this slot stemmed from a project I was given as a Science Explainer for Maker Faire 2010 which involved creating activities around the idea of 3D glasses. As well as a 3D Webcam  it involved a larger perspex version of this 3D pad with whiteboard pens.

Allowing people to create their own 3D drawings was a great success and seemed a nice open-ended idea for Curiosity. But when we sat down and talked about it as a full time exhibit we started to have our doubts. The success of the 3D table we felt was in part due to the particular kind of audience that came to the Maker Faire. When we thought about the previous exhibits we’d seen incorporating pens and drawing activities in a more general setting we realised that we’d never really seen anything that didn’t result in incoherent scribbles, name writing or rude messages most of the time. For myself in particular this was an interesting new lesson. Sometimes you have to sacrifice an idea you love and invested in because it doesn’t fit with the general idea of what you’re trying to achieve.

So we went back to our original list of ideas and noticed one we’d always loved that hadn’t quite made it through the first time; a giant ‘Music Box’.

But this opened up a whole musical can of worms. Would we provide whole instruments, or their basic parts? How much freedom would we give people when it came to choosing them? How could we make sure that multiple users could play at the same time, but still make it sound as if all the instruments fitted together rather then a large wall of indecipherable sound that hits you as you pass it by?

We had to limit the options enough to make sure the exhibit was bearable and recognisable as ‘music’, but still make it open-ended enough to fit with the ethos of Curiosity.

The result, we hope, is a nice balance of those two desires.

So lets start with our concept…

Music Box would consist of three instrument tables: a ‘plucker’ table that plucks specific strings, a ‘bell roller’ table that plays individual bells as it rolls by and a ‘tapper’ table that taps solid objects of different materials. Users could then choose which items/notes are played by placing them in the path of the arms. Music Box would be automated with all the arms moving at the same speed and started at the same time by pressing a button.

The prototype of Music Box wasn’t motorised but hand cranked instead to provide the same feel. You can see above some of the different blocks being tested on the ‘tapper’ arm. Unfortunately our bells didn’t arrive in time for the session so those had to be tested by the workshop team at a later date.

From this we discovered the materials and shapes that didn’t work (eg metal jugs) and also something about the behaviour of people when presented with this setup. Even though they knew all wheels could be moved at once, our advisors liked being able to control individual stations too. So for the final design we decided to continue with the handles on top allowing users to stop, and rotate, individual stations if they wished to test out different sequences. We limited the objects on our tapping station to a few different materials with similar shapes, but with the additional element of a wooden ‘croaking’ frog.

You can see some of the creations our advisors came up with in the video below

The basic outline of Music Box was now complete. The three stations with their three different instrument styles triggered automatically with the push of a button, or individually turned if needed.

Luckily with our previous exhibit, Disco, we’d already had some experience of creating turning elements at a particular rate of speed. All we needed to make sure was that individual stations could be stopped if need be.

As for the design it was important that while the exhibit had a general theme, each station needed to be individual enough that it was obvious only certain instruments could be played there.

The final result is the exhibit you see below.

As you can see we have a colour scheme that is reflected in all the stations, but varies between each one. The orange carpet is used to show the instrument area but also to provide friction and prevent the individual instruments from moving out of place when hit by their arm. The instrument blocks on the ‘tapper’ arm also wedge underneath the platform to provide extra stability when hit.

Music Box is now on the floor for testing. So far it’s had an interesting few days. We placed it on the floor on Tuesday morning and by Tuesday afternoon Richard had to come over and open it up again…

Unfortunately over the first few hours the arms had gradually slowed down until they came to a complete stop. Thankfully it was an issue already seen with Disco and relatively easy to fix. But it did raise an interesting question. When creating an automated exhibit how long do you run it for in the workshop before you place it on the floor?

The problem found on Tuesday with Music Box is something that would have arisen even if it had simply been left to run in the workshop by itself. But there are also problems that will never show until you place them in the conditions that they are meant to be in; continuous visitor use. And the problems so far have also been relatively easy to fix on the floor. So there is some merit in saving time in the exhibit’s build schedule by allowing these ‘settling’ faults to arise, along with visitor use faults,  during floor testing.

However Music Box isn’t our last automated exhibit. It may be with our next one that we allow a day or two of running in the workshop before we place it on the floor for testing. But that’s something that will have to be considered, and built into, our next build schedule.

Music Box is now running smoothly and if you are planning to come along to Life during half-term not only might you spot Wallace and Gromit but we hope you enjoy playing with it. And please let us know what you think either here, on Facebook or by tweeting scienceatlife 

(The teaser below will give you an idea of what to expect!)

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