To me, the MINEBLOCK project represents an excellent example of the convergence of a vast number of technical, digital, physical and human constraints. Knowing that being able to keep a close eye on all of these considerations simultaneously was going to be next to impossible, I asked a few friends to help with the product design aspect of the project. I requested Jason Miller’s assistance, he’s a recent graduate of the Emily Carr University Industrial Design program and the talented Afshin Mehin of Woke Design (Woke.co) who I meet working on the Recon Instruments project and acted essentially in a consulting capacity.
The following article documents our design process and perhaps acts as a bookmark for some of the issues that we encountered along the way. The software for MINEBLOCK went through about six small iterations to get to the point of a satisfactory user experience but the product design, the challenge in this realm was sewing a number of different technologies together to work seamlessly and alleviate end users from difficult configurations, this took roughly 4 weeks. In comparison, the product design which also took 4 weeks went through about twice as many iterations and varied greatly from the original intention. The prototyping of the product was framed by the criteria of Form, Material and Construction, which lead to discussions about final production techniques and cost of labour. The physical prototyping was done in parallel with the software prototyping and sometimes informed each other. In retrospect this was although difficult with a small team, it was clearly the right way to proceed and without the clear interplay between physical and digital the product would not have ended up in such an elegant minimal style.
– exploring horizontal bottom, vertical and diagonal board placement
Since the early days of the project, I was adamant the product reflect Minecraft’s unique visual language in a subtle understated way, the cube was the most obvious form to begin experimenting with. Because the large lego-like perfect cubes were the elemental construction blocks of Minecraft, it seemed only fitting to have the MINEBLOCK reference the same aesthetic. I was set on having the enclosure for MINEBLOCK be wood but was unsure of the size, type and the construction. I believe that there’s an interesting tension or contrast between the digital nature and precision of the Raspberry Pi and the organic materiality of a wooden box.
The size of the Raspberry Pi was one hard constraint with it’s longest dimension being 85mm and secondly with RPi Model B the I/O was one three sides of the PCB and the fourth side had a SD card. One of the questions that came up was, does the MINEBLOCK allow for access to all the inputs and outputs or should it conceal the ones that are not necessary?
For the first physical prototype a lego box was assembled with my 8 year old son to give us a sense of the size of a cube that would contain a Raspberry Pi. Early on, it seemed that a cube would be quite large and was starting to give the impression of an object that is not portable. This would be an issue as one of the key values of the MINEBLOCK is its portable nature.
wooden plywood construction
The next prototype was a wooden box constructed of quarter-inch plywood glued together. This ended up feeling somewhat large both in your hand as well as in a backpack or handbag. It became immediately clear that MINEBLOCK should not be a pure cube and convey the sense of cubes in another way.
For more cube explorations see MetaCube Article (written for Tangible Computing Course July 2014)
The next round of prototypes took the shape of a flattened cube, all with different types of wood and construction. First we tried laser-cutting side panels with box joints for a simple construction but visually the prototype looked cluttered and rather than referencing the visual world as Lego or Minecraft, its reading was more in the Arts & Crafts realm. Then we tried hollowing out a 2 x 4″” piece of wood to contain the Raspberry Pi and as a group we agreed unanimously about the direction of using a solid block of wood.
CNC (Computer Numerical Cutter) cut flattened cube
Laser-cut and box-jointed
Over the next week we experimented with a variety of ways of hollowing out wood. The first approach was arguably the easiest. Using a computer numerical control (CNC) machine we were able to get a clean accurate cut in the form of the Illustrator file that we provided the operator with. Our first attempt was with soft spruce 2x4x4″ block and cost 6 minutes of time on the CNC ($1.50/min). The second approach was the quickest, using a drill press and Forstner bit (See diagram) to drill 5 holes into the block of wood. Even with the final chiselling to finish/clean up some of the unwanted residue this approach was fast but inaccurate, hard to reproduce and gave us little insight into the actual future production technique. The third approach was to build a template jig to help guide a handheld router with a 1/4″ routing bit. This technique was challenging as each pass of the router was to be 1/4″ maximum which ended up being 5 passes. This technique would not be appropriate for production as it took a great deal of time and it would be extremely difficult to yield consistent results in this manner.
Drill Press to hollow out block
RaspberryPi in hollowed wooden block
The final experiment was to return to the CNC machine with our final choice of wood, Birch and the exact depth for hollowing a block. This approach also cost 6 minutes in time and the results were accurate and beautiful. Additionally the machine operator assured us that if you were to do a larger number of blocks you could have them all be hollowed out of one large plank and then cut would be an efficient way to produce a larger production run. This approach was by far the most promising production technique.
CNC prototypes at Makerlabs
Closing the box
We tried a number of ways of giving the box a lid or closing panel. The option that seemed most appropriate was the 1/4″ acrylic bottom plate, which if in a smoked, dark tint would give the impression that the wooden box was floating with a slight drop shadow. Next came the issue of exposing the inputs and outputs of the Raspberry Pi. The biggest issue being birch’s density and thickness not allowing us to laser-cut onto the hollowed block. After many experiments we discovered that the best way would be to laser cut two acrylic panels that would allow for the RPi’s inputs and outputs. These panels could be cut out of the same material as the bottom plate and could be glued together to reduce the number of pieces while still allowing users to be able to access their RPi by only loosening a few screws on the bottom plate.
Large cutouts for RPi I/O
Lasercut tinted acrylic panels
Our MINEBLOCK size changed quite a bit over our process. The final change was to make the cube 105 x 105 x 45mm. Although this was only a 1/4″ smaller than our original cube if felt much better in your hand.
I may have left the brand identity component to the end of this article but it is by no means less important or the one we thought about the least. The were many sketches and ideas for how the visual language would be represented on the MINEBLOCK. Where would the logo sit? How would the block exude a cube visual language? How would it touch on the Minecraft aesthetic in a subtle way. The initial logo had a simple isometrically-drawn cube in it and the idea of bringing that cube into a 3D representation came about.
Initial Logo design
We experimented with quite a few approaches before we decided on one. Here are some of the more successful ones:
- laser-cut cube
- shallow router indentation of cube
- Cube cutout
- Acrylic block glued into corner
Lasercut Burned Logo
cube cut out and embossed with router
MINEBLOCK with acrylic cube glued into corner
Acrylic Bottom plates in fluorescent colours adds a beautiful glow