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Education Media Hardware

Building A Museum Listening Station? 251

Posted by timothy
from the use-ogg-too-but-how dept.
Anonymous Coward writes "I am building a museum exhibit which requires the use of 10 listening stations. These should be able to play back a few minutes of audio, should have an obvious Play button (and no other buttons: less confusion for the elderly and less to break for the kids), and should be able to work with an absolute minimum of supervision for three months of constant use. There are fancy ready-made solutions to this problem, but at $350, it would be too expensive to buy 10 of them. Similarly, there are cheap solutions ($20 CD player + $15 headphones), but this is probably not reliable or user friendly enough for this exhibit. Does the Slashdot community have any suggestions for how to build a reasonably inexpensive museum listening station?"
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Building A Museum Listening Station?

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  • Go MP3? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by leetdan (776353) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:03PM (#9102050)
    You should be able to pick up an older solid-state MP3 player for next to nothing. Wire it up with a DC adapter, connect the Play button, and either use headphones or amp it to a speaker.
  • by MR_60 (729081) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:04PM (#9102052)
    Instead of 10 seperate stations, why not have one system that runs all the booths. It could be a PC with ten seperate sets of USB headphones, and some specially configured software. I'm sure this wouldn't be too difficult for someone to develop...
  • Directed sound (Score:5, Insightful)

    by deanj (519759) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:05PM (#9102065)
    Fork out the bucks to put a few of the directed sound systems in. You won't have stolen equipment, and you'll serve the same purpose. Getting something that patrons will handle will cost you a lot more long term.
  • by DoorFrame (22108) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:06PM (#9102068) Homepage
    Presumably that won't start upon the request of the user though, one of his stated requirements.
  • Re:Mp3 (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Goldfinger7400 (630228) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:07PM (#9102079)
    Yes, you could even use the CD players you mentioned, and just jury-rig a big red button to start it. Your problem is easily solved with a little electronics tinkering (RadioShack probably has everything you need.)
  • by Chordonblue (585047) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:08PM (#9102086) Journal
    Wow! Asking for help from a community of technically knowledgable users is now considered to be lazy. What? You never ask friends or collegues questions about your projects?

    Oh right, you have ALL the answers...

    How does a comment like this get modded as 'Insightful'? C'mon people - USE YOUR HEADS!

  • Re:Mp3 (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Goldfinger7400 (630228) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:10PM (#9102094)
    Ammendment: You wouldn't want people to be able to pause the presentation, so you'd need to build some sort of delay circuit into the button. So, after it is pressed, you can't send another signal to the play/pause button till after you know it would be done.
  • Re:Mp3 (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bobdotorg (598873) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:12PM (#9102104)
    Have the MP3 player repeating the single track, with the big red button attached to the 'skip forward' or 'skip ahead' track button.

    The only shortcoming of this simple plan is that the audio is always playing.
  • by MoonBuggy (611105) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:16PM (#9102124) Journal
    Get arcade machine buttons - they are available for a few $ on eBay, usually sold to people building MAME cabinets. Since they're designed to withstand years of drink spills, cig burns and general abuse I'm sure they'd be fine in a museum for a few months. You should be able to find a bag of 10 for less than $50. Wire them into the play connections on cheap 16MB MP3 players as mentioned above, hook up some el-cheapo portable active speakers, seal it all into a box with a power lead coming out the back and you're good to go.
  • Re:Lazy you (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Black_Logic (79637) <wintermuteNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:19PM (#9102138) Homepage Journal
    I guess you were probably just trolling, but don't you think that's a little bit ridiculous? Assuming that this guy is getting paid for this, which he could certainly not be (i.e. volunteering for some non-profit organization) regardless, he obviously followed the guidelines for asking a public, technical forum a question. Polite, showed that he'd done the required google research.

    As an aside, why do people so often get pissed about the ask slashdot sections? Google does an excellent job for most things, but if you're considering building some project or doing something technically interesting google doesn't always have links to all the pitfalls or the interesting storys that go along with a project from someone with experience in that area. These often end up being the most interesting threads, IMHO.
  • by steve buttgereit (644315) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:32PM (#9102202) Homepage
    Hi--

    I use to work for Virgin Entertainment Group, Inc. (the Virgin Megastores in the US) and other retailers where listening stations were involved.

    Really you have to consider how many people will comoe through the exhibit, average age, how long the exhibit will run etc. to understand what solution is best or to really cost it out.

    So if you go with $15 dollar headphones, will they stand up to being put on, taken off, people tugging on them, etc. or will you be replacing one set a day due to breakage? This naturally means each set doesn't cost $15, but each station costs somewhat higher than that. You really need to think along these lines to compare costs. Especially given your condition of minimal oversight; that means people will be more inclined to abuse them (or rather less inhibited to, and yes even the queit museum crowd will abuse equipment as we saw in our classical departments.)

    You could source the sound from a single computer, but you would need multiple output channels (probably multiple sound cards) and software to support it. Other than the pre-packaged solutions, I'm not so familiar with what's available in this category.

    If you want to go cheaper could you not use actual speakers, with partitions and volume settings such that there isn't too much bleed over from one sound space to another? Disney actually puts this same kind of concept to effective use on many of their themepark rides. This would eliminate the 'touch' element which usually cause headphones to die in these situations. Of course, not seeing the exhibit, it might not be practical.
  • by fmaxwell (249001) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @06:41PM (#9102242) Homepage Journal
    I've worked on audio for museum exhibits and am currently doing work for an audio tour that will be presented at a prestigious museum in Washington, D.C. There are a few firms involved in this kind of work and the equipment is expensive because it is made in small quantities and is extremely rugged. For the portable audio tour devices, there are industrial-grade, sophisticated charging racks and the individual audio devices have buttons and features so that visitors can see the exhibits in any order and learn more about individual stops (think "hyperlink").

    Using consumer-grade CD players, MP3 players, and headphones for a museum exhibit is like replacing a pay phone outside of a convenience store with a $10 phone from Walmart. If it was possible to put on an exhibit with $50 worth of equipment per person, then the big companies like Acoustiguide, Antenna Audio, and Tour-Mate would be driven out of business by cheap competitors.

    Why do people assume that anything expensive must be overpriced? Sometimes things are expensive to buy because they are expensive to make. And often they are still as cheap as they can be for their intended use. Police departments and rescue squads pay a lot of money for Motorola and Icom walkie-talkies and in-vehicle radios, but it doesn't mean that equipping police cars and ambulances with $40 Cobra CB radios and giving cops $50/pair Uniden FRS/GMRS walkie talkies would be a clever move.
  • The author of the story doesn't give us any details about what kind of skills he has for this. Can he do simple scripting in linux or another os? Are the stations for listening going to be too far away to be centrally linked easily? What kind of a budget DOES he have?

    I think a PC with some software might work great but unless someone is going to code the software for him i doubt it will work.
  • by Trejkaz (615352) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @07:16PM (#9102413) Homepage
    It's funny how the most informative posts usually have the worst spelling.
  • by Anml4ixoye (264762) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @07:17PM (#9102415) Homepage
    Police departments and rescue squads pay a lot of money for Motorola and Icom walkie-talkies and in-vehicle radios, but it doesn't mean that equipping police cars and ambulances with $40 Cobra CB radios and giving cops $50/pair Uniden FRS/GMRS walkie talkies would be a clever move.

    Before moving to NC, I spent 7 1/2 years with a large fire/rescue department in Florida. The radios we had - Motorola's - were worse then the old analog systems we used when I first started. As in you couldn't key up, the radios would not receive inside patient's houses, etc. For a 15 million dollar or so system, I think I would rather take a CB and some repeaters then the junk Motorola sold us.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 09, 2004 @07:50PM (#9102569)
    Using a cheap little speaker and a parabolic reflector (aka, a metal bowl), you can pretty easily make directional sound. Just mount the bowl above the place where you want it heard, put the speaker inside the bowl, play the sound. With the volume right, you can hear it underneath the bowl and a bit to the sides, but practically nowhere else in the room. I've seen this done before, it works very well. If you have a drop ceiling, you can even put it inside the ceiling, above the tiles.
  • by way2trivial (601132) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @08:02PM (#9102623) Homepage Journal
    those are NOT radios..
    they are solid state mp3 player type devices...
    you enter a track# and it plays it from internal memory... and they are not cheap devices at all...
  • by Log from Blammo (777614) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @08:04PM (#9102631)

    The phone analogy is good, but backwards. This situation seems more akin to installing a new payphone in your living room, rather than using a cheap phone from Wal-Mart. The museum in question cannot afford to waste an extra few thousand dollars on features, reliability, and personnel that it doesn't need. They are asking Slashdotters for free help over the Internet, after all.

  • by VE3MTM (635378) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @08:20PM (#9102736)
    Disclaimer: This is based on the rules put out by Industry Canada, not the FCC, so there may be some differences, but I don't think so. The rules for broadcasting radio signals basically boil down to whoever has primary and secondary rights to a band. For the FM broadcast band (93 MHz to 108MHz), which I believe you would be using, channel are sold to radio stations, and they have primary access to the channel. The general public is a secondary user. As a primary user, the radio stations have the right to shut down any station found to be interfering with their service. This is where the FCC gets involved. If you find yourself an unused channel, and broadcast at low power, then you won't have a problem. You might want to keep an eye on it to make sure a station doesn't start up on that channel.
  • Re:Mp3 (Score:3, Insightful)

    by netsharc (195805) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @08:47PM (#9102886)
    I somehow doubt the cd player can withstand playing non-stop for so long.. I think the motor would break after a short while..
  • hmpf. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by corian (34925) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @09:29PM (#9103054)
    less confusion for the elderly

    That's rather rude. There are plenty of older people perfectly confortable with compuers, and at least as many young luddites.
  • by mmurphy000 (556983) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @09:35PM (#9103073)
    These should be able to play back a few minutes of audio, should have an obvious Play button (and no other buttons: less confusion for the elderly and less to break for the kids), and should be able to work with an absolute minimum of supervision for three months of constant use. There are fancy ready-made solutions to this problem, but at $350, it would be too expensive to buy 10 of them. Similarly, there are cheap solutions ($20 CD player + $15 headphones), but this is probably not reliable or user friendly enough for this exhibit.
    Various questions and food for thought:
    • Don't forget the money value of time. Unless all staff working on this project are volunteers, staff time costs money, and the time spent fussing creating some custom solution may blow all your apparent cost savings on the equipment.
    • You don't indicate what the exact scope of your between-$35-and-$350 problem is. For example, are you including a stand and mounting hardware in that budget? The more you gotta spend on those things, the less you have for the smarts.
    • Does "minimum of supervision" include staff time to turn things off? If not, are power draw or battery charging be included in that $35-350 budget?
    • Are you sure you need a Play button? If the audio is short enough, go with what other posters have suggested and do continuous-loop, with a sign indicating that the audio repeats every N minutes. I've been to museums that have taken that approach.
    • Are you better served by finding donors for the $3,500 for the commercial-grade stations than in finding a technical solution that avoids them? Heck, all you need is one sponsor per station, where you can attach a "audio content sponsored by" sign. $350 for a concrete promotional outcome should be relatively straightforward. You might even consider going with audio-related sponsors to increase your odds of getting the donation (radio stations, car audio stores, sound studios, etc.).
  • by fmaxwell (249001) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @09:40PM (#9103099) Homepage Journal
    I call troll. Why can't he do it cheap and himself?

    Because the ruggedized equipment needed is not available at a low price -- and producing it entails plastics molding, machining, design, testing, prototyping, etc.

    Let the exhibit start with this and then upgrade as they go.

    1. You are mistaking initial purchase price for total cost. If they have a dozen consumer-grade headphones and three go out per day due to breakage and theft, the real cost is huge. That's not unrealistic with kids, people used to industrial-quality equipment in public places, etc. The commercial stuff with the big ticket price is less costly than consumer stuff in the real world -- especially when you factor in costs for museum staff to maintain the fragile consumer stuff.

    2. A museum is unlikely to get much money to upgrade an exhibit that's already open. It's not like a start-up business. A bunch of consumer-quality headphones, many of which are broken at any given time, is unlikely to generate enough income to ever fund proper equipment.

    Just becuase something is from a name-brand company doesnt mean that he can't make it for cheaper himself.

    It has nothing to do with the brand name. It has to do with the cost of manufacturing ruggedized audio devices in low quantities. There are no headphones at Best Buy, Circuit City, or Fry's that are going to hold up to kids yanking on cords, people dropping them multiple times per day, the cord being pulled tight, and so forth.

    It may not come with whiz-bang feature X but if it gets the job done, stop complaining how a wal-mart phone will put pay-phone companies out of business

    It won't get the job done and I'm not complaining about anything. Put a Walmart phone outside of a convenience store in place of a real pay phone and it will be broken, vandalized, or stolen with 12 hours. Same thing if you put consumer-grade headphones and CD players (or MP3 players) to handle a museum exhibition.
  • by fmaxwell (249001) on Sunday May 09, 2004 @10:46PM (#9103393) Homepage Journal
    The phone analogy is good, but backwards. This situation seems more akin to installing a new payphone in your living room, rather than using a cheap phone from Wal-Mart.

    My analogy was dead-nuts on. It was putting cheap consumer-grade electronics (a Walmart phone) into a public place (outside of a convenience store). That's exactly what we're talking about here. Is your living room a public place? Is your living room frequented by strangers? Is your living room equipped with electronics that random strangers are allowed to operate? No, but a museum is.

    The museum in question cannot afford to waste an extra few thousand dollars on features, reliability, and personnel that it doesn't need.

    Quality and reliability are not a waste of money and it is musueum personnel who would have to guard, man, replace, and repair a system cobbled together from components at a consumer electronics stores. It's museum personnel who would have to deal with all of the headphones going silent at once when some rugrat yanks his headphone cord, breaking the insulation and shorting signal to ground, taking out the output stage of the amp, etc., etc., etc. It's museum personnel who would have to replace the headphones that were stolen when some hoodlum cut the cord and put the headphones under his coat. It's the museum that would have to find, purchase, and install new foam earpads when the public ripped them up (or off) in about a week. It's the museum personnel who would have to clean the earwax from the foam earpads (something not used on the professional equipment) every day. The list goes on and on.

    You have a false sense of economy. It's cheaper to buy something appropriate for the job, even if it's more costly initially, than it is to purchase inappropriate, delicate consumer electronics that will be constantly in need of repair or replacement.

    They are asking Slashdotters for free help over the Internet, after all.

    So do you suggest that I just tell them what they want to hear rather than telling them the truth? Should I ignore my experience in this area and just pretend that everything will work out fine with $300 worth of CD player and headphones? If that's what you are suggesting, you have a strange idea of what "help" is.
  • by thrash242 (697169) on Monday May 10, 2004 @12:46AM (#9103969)
    I think getting a pro sampler program like Kontakt ($300-$400) might be a bit overkill. There's a nifty program called SoundPlant that lets you assign a sample to each key on the (computer) keyboard and tweak various settings. And it's free.

    It, (like Kontakt) can stream audio files directly from the hard drive, eliminating the need for a lot of RAM. You would need an audio card with 10 outputs, however, like the parent poster said. You could get multiple cards if you need to have more outputs. Maybe USB or firewire external ones would be a good idea.

    As for rigging play buttons, look into MAME cabinet building sites. They describe how to wire seperate buttons into a keyboard encoder, which is outputed as a keyboard or USB signal.

    This is probably the simplest and most reliable way to do this. It should be better than having 10 different playback devices. It shouldn't be too expensive, either.

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