Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

Fresh & New(er) header image 2

Carlos & Nico discuss the making of Facetweetbox with Lego & Arduino

September 10th, 2011 by Seb Chan

One of the pleasures of working with the teams that I do at the Powerhouse is that even in the busiest part of the year they manage to find time to experiment and turn up something quirky. Sometimes these quirky experiments even go on to become the foundation stones of future projects.

Most recently, during a hectic July when festival microsites, major exhibition microsites, and mobile apps were all running as parallel live projects, Carlos and Nico started building something with Lego.

It became the Facetweetbox.

I asked Nico and Carlos about this and its genesis.

F&N: What is the main idea behind building Facetweetbox?

Nico: I sit right next to this ‘ideas and implementation factory’ called Carlos. One day he rode his digital pony into the office and showed me a project by Matt Reed from Red Pepper.

Immediately we started talking about doing something in a similar vein ourselves.

It seemed to be a fun little side project that would help us encourage other staff and visitors to engaging on social media channels we are active in.

Let me explain.

As you know, the Powerhouse Museum is a very active cultural institution, both in physical and virtual form. We do more than store and sometimes display great collections. We are always pushing to build stories and help others build stories around objects and shared ideas. Exchanges of ideas and information happen in many places, from dry repositories like the Museum Metadata Exchange to lively posts on a festival’s Facebook page. I believe we have has a responsibility to encourage even informal conversation towards educative and creative exchange.

The museum is very lucky in that we tend to naturally pick up a lot of social media chatter. I think this is in large part due to operating as a fairly well respected cultural institution that actually does lots of festivals, events, talks and exhibitions. The challenge for our team is to make visitors aware of these exchange and then encourage them to explore these spaces. The other challenge is to push our staff to engage with these channels. Without both social media becomes either unguided or just ‘PR shouty’.

So Facetweetbox was seen as a fun way to encourage both visitors and staff alike.

When you’re at a conference or event and there’s a stream of tweets displayed on a screen, I often think it is great to be reminded of that channel but it feels out of place to have Twitter of Facebook broadcast like that. Sure, twitter is public message exchange but placing it outside of my hand and on a TV screen misses the implicit joy and satisfaction of information exchanges and the playfulness of backchannel communication. Facetweetbox shows you that something is going on but not what that actually is. The contents of a tweet is not expressed so it is a great little call to action playing on the human instinct to want to know what is being said, by whom and why.

Finally, from a actual construction point of view it was really all about fun. I mean, who does not want to play/work with Lego.

I had really hoped to debut this bit of kit at the Sydney Design 2011 but with delays in the delivery of some parts it did not happen.

CARLOS: It was really simple.

Facetweetbox is an extension of the type of projects I do for enjoyment outside of work at the Museum. I’ve always sought to move the digital space from the virtual to the ‘real world’ – to generate physical reactions. To surprise people. For example, to ‘blow out a candle via the Internet’. That was a project I did a year ago.

And, given the high intensity of that period in the office, the main idea was to have fun and challenge Nico a bit.

Q: How did you custom design the Lego? Are there any Lego bits you wished you could have added?

NICO: I started by sketching it out and using the Lego Designer to play around with some designs, from complex to simple shapes. In the end it really came down to function and cost winning over aesthetics. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really happy with the end product, but certainly was the more conservative of the designs. In the end I wanted something that was;
– robust, hence the sometimes over engineered interlacing of the bricks.
– reusable, hence the dual box configuration with transparent bricks front. If a new player or a logo change happens we should be able to create it using generic white bricks.
– compartmentalized, hence separate spacing for the power units, controllers and the LED light areas.
– accessible, hence the use of a easy to access area for the power unit (battery or power supply) and control units.


In the end the physical build you see today is a stripped down version to some degree, mainly for the cost reasons listed about. Lego Control Computers and step ladders are there so the Minfigs can access the unit via the back door to keep everything going.

Q: What Arduino components are used? How do they work? Are there any Arduino components that you wished existed that don’t?

CARLOS: The following components where used;
– Arduino Decimillia (temporarily)
– Arduino jumper cables
– WiShield 2.0
– 32 LED RGB strip addressable
– 9 Volts adaptor 1000 milliAmps

There is also a server component to this setup. We have a (virtualised) Linux box running a Django site that queries Facebook and Twitter with the given values. For Twitter it can be set to any string, and for Facebook is can be any link that is associated with a Like button.

In the future I would like to see this extended to comments.

The services are queried every 30 seconds by the Lego people inside the box and then the they receive a simple string format response that instructs them to flick the switches inside the box to flash in a particualr way – duration, repetition, location and colour.

I would like to enable the device to run of mains power as well as lipo batteries to ensure lasting performance and portability. Oh, and sound effects (*pew*pew*pew*)!

I’d also like to start to look at sentiment analysis and translate that into a colour scheme and/or pattern. In the case of Twitter, I want to map particular strings to colours and/or patterns.

You could also target the installations of LEDs within gallery spaces to react to particular strings. For example if you are in a Lace exhibition and someone takes a photo and tweets it with hashtag #lovelace a particular visual or sonic reference could be triggered in the exhibition space.

Tags: 4 Comments

  • Caz

    Is there no end to the ingenuity up there?! Well done guys – I’m in awe!

  • It is looking like Facetweetbox will make a public appearance at Web Directions South this year also!

  • Is there any chance one could be commissioned for a museum in the States? I want, I want!

  • Hey Amy, sorry for the delay. We could certainly make one for you. You can contact me on luked [at] phm.gov.au to talk further. Thanks