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Dozens Piloting NFC-Driven Museum in a Box

Collections like those at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Smithsonian Libraries are testing the NFC-enabled "brain box," which contains 3D-printed models and picture postcards of artifacts, to trigger recorded descriptions, commentary or music, or to record new sounds dedicated to a particular artifact.
By Claire Swedberg
Sep 14, 2018

London-based technology startup Museum in a Box has developed an RFID-enabled tool to bring museums to the public, especially to school children. The system consists of a 13.56 MHz Near Field Communication (NFC) reading "brain box" with a Raspberry Pi microcomputer, an NFC reader, an amplifier and a speaker. Objects with NFC tags affixed—such as a picture postcard or a 3D-printed model—can then interact with the box by triggering it to play audio related to the unique ID number encoded on a particular item's tag. The company is now seeking partnerships with RFID hardware providers for its full commercial rollout.

The technology is being used by several museums, including the Smithsonian Libraries, located in Washington, D.C., and the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. The premise of the technology development was to make museums more accessible, says George Oates, Museum in a Box's founder and CEO. Oates is a Web designer who worked with the company's CTO, Adrian McEwen, to develop the solution.

Museum in a Box allows people to interact with digital cultural heritage collections.
Oates first began brainstorming and testing prototypes for a system in October 2015, when she was offered residency at the Somerset House Studio, a workspace for artists and innovators, on the River Thames. She began exploring how 3D-printed objects, representing pieces from the British Museum's collection, could launch access to audible information.

McEwen and Oates set up a box with an NFC reader and NFC stickers on models to produce simple interactions. The box comes with sound but no visuals, other than a light that shines green when a tag is being read. The omission of visuals, such as a touch screen, are by design, Oates says. "It's a physical, tactile experience," she states. "There are no screens." That's because young people already spend a large percentage of their time watching screens and responding to prompts. According to Oates, the goal was to give students or adults a tactile experience without the screen.

By the end of the year, Oates and McEwen had developed functional NFC reading boxes that could interrogate tags and play audible content in response. They had their first deployment as a test in 2016. Since then, the boxes have been deployed for the Smithsonian, the Victoria and Albert, and other museums, as well as for other parties around London. The system is also being implemented in Stockholm, Baghdad and Melbourne.

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