Back to the drawing board?

Earlier this week, I wrote a post about my ideas for Interactive Exhibit Design. A few days later and I’m back to the drawing board – but I’m learning that in this class, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The main issue with the Napoleon idea is that the exhibit is not exactly interactive enough. In order to tell the history of a military campaign, it’s necessary to narrate events in chronological order – which restricts the activity of the exhibit user to pressing the same button over and over to advance the story (or something of the like). Not so exciting. But what remains exciting about that idea is the whole history-interactive-based-on-a-map thing.

Makey Makey and Max turned a cardboard map and ship into a hair-raising piratey adventure!

Makey Makey and Max turned a cardboard map and ship into a hair-raising pirate adventure!

Then in Wednesday’s class, I came upon a solution almost by accident. We spent the session building little interactives using Max 6, Makedo and Makey Makeys. My partner Stephanie Johns and I ended up making a little map of the high seas, complete with sea serpents, deserted islands and treasure. The ground wire of the Makey Makey was attached to a cardboard pirate ship, the bottom of which was coated in tin foil. Points of interest on our map were also hooked up to individual arrow keys on the Makey Makey. A patch on Max 6 was created to respond to instances of an arrow key being pressed. When the tin foil on the ship touches a marker on the map, the computer thinks you’ve pressed one of the arrow keys; Max then sends a piratey pop-up message on the screen and plays a little sound that has to do with what you encountered. (Including the sound of a treasure chest opening, straight from Legend of Zelda.) In fact, this pirate idea is a lot like my Napoleon map in that it responds with something on-screen when a marker is activated. But there’s one important difference: you can navigate the entire map and reach the markers in whatever order you want.

After consulting with my professor, Dr. Bill Turkel, we agreed that it would be fun to recreate something similar to the pirate activity on a more complex scale. I could pick a historical trade route (I’m thinking 16th-century Portuguese spice trade) and have a reproduction of a historic map laminated to something like cardstock or foam core. By pressing buttons for different cities, you can make a little ship sail around the map. Ideally, your options for which city you can sail to next would be limited based on current location, so you can’t sail from one side of the world to the other without making some stops in between. (Dr. Turkel has a Max patch online that should provide for that, but clearly I don’t understand it yet – after putting in my items and numbers, I’m still somehow able to sail straight from the Azores to Nagasaki!) When the little ship reaches its destination, information, pictures, and sound are activated through Max. If the map is hung vertically, it’s possible that the ship could be controlled by one magnet on the ship and a magnet behind the map which drags the ship to its mark. How does the magnet behind the map move? So glad you asked. The magnet could be held by strings, which are hooked up to two stepper motors, which are hooked up to a Phidget, which is hooked up to Max, which is hooked up to the buttons. Basically, the same mechanics behind a drawbot or an etch-a-sketch. But of course you knew that. I, on the other hand, have no clue how to make all this stuff work, other than the fact that there’s a lot of trigonometry involved. In a sense that’s rather fitting. There’s a lot of trigonometry involved in navigating a real ship, too.

Although I also liked my earlier ideas, I think this new contraption may give me more of what I’m looking for in terms of both didactic value, interactivity, and complexity (if it works, that is). Who knew that building robots was in this historian’s future?

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