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Rebuilding Illumitune

SparkFun CEO Nate sets out to fix a museum display!

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The first order of business is a reminder that SparkFun will be very short-staffed starting at 12 pm through the rest of the day today, July 21st. Most of the staff will be on our SparkFun summer excursion - this year, we are going to a Rockies game at Coors Field! Wonder if we can convince them to let us play with the JumboTron electronics? Perhaps...

A few of the engineers here at SparkFun, including our CEO Nate Seidle, have been volunteering their time at at a local kid's museum called World of Wonder (WOW). At first, they mostly fixed buttons, switches, and the like. They also gained a newfound respect for those individuals that build museum displays. Building electronics is challenging, but building projects to withstand having hundreds of kids "play" with them each day is even more so.

What you see in the picture above is called the Illumitune - basically an infrared harp that uses IR sensors, lights, and some other cool electronics to create a unique display of light, sound, and color. And it was broken. And they wanted Nate to fix it. Naturally, there were no schematics, firmware, or supporting information of any kind - this project would be a fun one!

The old main board of the Illumitune, sitting on top of the MIDI synthesizer and large amplifier.

So Nate set out to make it work. After some trial and error, he got Illumitune up-and-running. He documented his experiences in a tutorial - Lessons from Re-Building Illumitune. Check it out! What should he have done differently? What did he do that was great? We think there is a lot to be learned from this cool experience.

Comments 26 comments

  • Is that Illumitune sign... in COMIC SANS?

  • Happy 666th news post! Keep up the hilarious comic sans antics, Satan!

    • The first news post was number 7, so you're going to have to wait about a week for the actual news post number 666.

      • Correction: http://www.sparkfun.com/news/6 :O

        • Yikes! That was a long time ago! It's been a wild 6 years since those posts.

          • I know, right... How the years pass along. I remember the first time visiting sparkfun, right when it got it's makeover. Anyways fantastic job on the piece. (and your multi-million dollar company ;)

  • I've been working now for about 6 weeks at a production company that builds interactive exhibits for museums and our rule of thumb is to assume kids are going to attack your exhibit with hammers. Just assume it. Then design around that.

  • Ah, the joys of designing for a museum environment! Mil spec isn't enough. That's not just a silly comment, but plain, bland truth. Visitors who abuse equipment don't even make the worst problems. The hard use from thousands of visitors takes a toll on anything mechanical. When something fails, it has to be fixed damned near immediately, so your equipment must be maintainable.
    If you ever get the chance to talk to some of the technical specialists in a working museum or science center do it! There's a great deal of practical wisdom to be learned.

    • Agreed. Museums are a great environment to be humbled. I once heard a scientist at the Exploratorium talk about looking for a switch/button for an exhibit. The manufacturer swore the button would stand up to a million cycles. The day came, 9 months later, when the button broke. The mfg was flustered that their button had failed. That was until the Exploratorium started running the numbers - they had indeed statically surpassed 1MM cycles on the button. Know anyone who makes a 10MM cycle button?

      • Topre (A Japanese company) makes really expensive keyboards with capacitive switches that have a 30M cycle lifetime. The keys feel really nice and are relatively quiet.
        IBM model M buckling switches were also pretty durable. Something like 25M cycles I think?

      • It would be truly fascinating to read about how to make electronics etc. that's actually able to survive "the public" using it. I'll bet a lot of makers (& SparkFun customers) face this issue. I'm sure the people who build these displays for a living have some great tricks.
        @TimCole: I love that quote.

      • I read of a group of laid-off defense engineers who decided they'd use their experience in simulators to build arcade games. (Yeah, that dates this tale!) They built their prototypes with mil spec components, and figured they were covered. Nope. Their machines were toasted within a couple of weeks.
        As one chagrined engineer put it, "In the defense business, people only tried to blow our stuff up!"

      • Sounds like a need for a more solid-state button (Hall-effect sensor and a magnet), or a capacitive type touch switch.

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