Thinking About Interactive Exhibit Design

This term, I’m taking a course in Interactive Exhibit Design as part of the Public History program at Western. We’ve spent the last few weeks tinkering with different interactive platforms such as Makey Makey and using the Max 7 software. I’ve realized a number of things so far. Firstly, I’ve taken for granted how easy it is to act as a user of well-designed interactive activities in museums or public displays. It’s a lot harder to actually program a device to facilitate that interaction.

We started out connecting Makey Makey devices to home-made “controllers” that could be used to interact with a Max patch. The hard part wasn’t connecting the Makey Makey to my computer, but having the flexibility to set up what hitting a button would trigger. For example, my partner for the exercise and I built a controller and were attempting to play Tetris with it. While we could control the blocks moving down and side to side, plus getting them to rotate, there weren’t enough interfaces with the Makey Makey to have a working “pause” button. This complicated how we could play. Because the Makey Makey has set keyboard keys associated with its inputs and outputs, it made it hard to use our controller to play structured games that required specific keyboard keys to be fully functional. Luckily, for our projects we can use Max to set how users interact with what we are designing. This means that when I’m creating a Max patch, I will only use specific key controls within the patch. Someone interacting with the patch using a controller wouldn’t have to know this for them to be able to use the controller, though.

A computer hooked up to a set of wires and a cardboard controller. The computer screen shows an ongoing game of Tetris being played.
Playing Tetris with Makey Makey! Our controller is to the right, connected to all of the wires.

This gets me to my project idea. I’ve worked for the Trent-Severn Waterway for the last few summers, and have learned so much about how locks operate. Visitors to the locks usually don’t know exactly how they work, though. There is a really neat interactive learning tool that lets people operate an animated lock:

An animated lock for boats, with controls that allow people to "operate" it. There are two sets of valves, gates, and traffic lights.
This is a look at the virtual lock activity. There are controls for the valves, gates, and traffic lights. You can get the tugboat to go up or down through the locks by using the controls at the bottom. From http://www.pragmasoft.be/carnets/geo/ecluse/ecluse_simulation.html.

What I’m going to be doing is recreating the function of this activity using Makey Makey and an external controller. Hopefully, I will be able to connect it to a model of a lock to make it easier for a user to walk around it and see how a lock actually works.

It’s going to be a busy few weeks, but I’m looking forward to seeing how this project evolves and what I learn from the process!

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