The Story of Mineblock: Designing a Meta Product
Every once in a while we are presented with opportunities that change your life. I am now in my forties, have had my fair share of opportunities that have changed my world, and I'm getting a knack for recognizing them when they come about. Pursuing a Master in Digital Media was one of those times.
Initially the thought of being a student after a successful twenty year career as a designer seemed daunting at the least, but after some contemplation I realized that I've lived a life of constant reinvention and it was time for another change catalyst. After all, I've worked as an architect, a professional musician, a film composer, a CBC producer, a founder of a design firm and a professor. Why stop reinventing my career now?
Choosing grad schools was not something that I took lightly. I had the choice of a number of great schools like California College of Art in San Francisco and Royal College of Art in London, but deciding on the Centre for Digital Media wasn't difficult. The Master of Digital Media program gave me the time and space to explore my interests in deep and meaningful ways. I knew that my focus would combine designing products that merge hardware & software, as well as, creating a startup. This is how the process unfolded for me.
Designer meets maker
It comes as no surprise that Maker culture is tipping into mainstream. What was once the Do-it-Yourself (DIY) and Craft movements have now evolved to include open source culture, web technology, electronics and a pinch of hipster nostalgia. In 2013, there were 100 Maker Faires around the world including its two flagship events in the Bay Area and New York and 93 mini-faires worldwide. In the United States alone, there are reportedly approximately 135 million adult Makers — that’s well over half (57%) of the American population ages 18 and up. You only have to visit a Maker Faire to see that people are creating amazing projects in their basements and garages all over the world. DIY by the numbers: why the maker movement is here to stay.
Designers now have the chance to engage with makers, developers and business innovators to help them create meaningful products and services that consider long term implications and add to the quality of our lives. That is how I came to working with engineers, product designers, and business mentors to build Mineblock.
Statistics according to Maker Faire
Experimentation & prototyping
The idea for Mineblock began when my 8 year old son, Jivan explained that a roller coaster he had built had been destroyed by a stranger in a multiplayer Minecraft game. Other parents found that this was a common occurrence, so I set out to solve the problem using the affordable prototyping board, Raspberry Pi (RPi). By the end of my first semester in the MDM program I pitched a concept for helping parents give their children a place to play Minecraft safely–the idea of "security in a box" I came to call Mineblock. It became clear through design research, that parents would rather not have their children play on open public servers on the web, or pay $30/month for dedicated Minecraft hosting services. These parents all seemed to prefer to have a physical tangible object that would provide the gaming environment. With this in mind, I aimed to achieve the three main goals for Mineblock, in order to create a minimum viable product (MVP) with Mineblock:
- Run a Minecraft Server on RPi
- Dynamically create an new ad-hoc network if there isn't a network to connect to
- Create a web app that allows people to connect and setup their Mineblock to their home wifi
Early sketches of cube design for Mineblock
From the beginning I was adamant the product reflect Minecraft’s unique visual language in a subtle and understated way. Because the large lego-like perfect cubes were the elemental construction blocks of Minecraft, it seemed only fitting that the first prototype reference this Mineblock aesthetic.
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 cube and would have to convey the cube motif in another way.
First physical prototype - Lego, Second physical prototype - plywood construction
After about 5 different prototypes we settled on using a CNC machine to hollow out a block of Beech wood. This approach cost 6 minutes in time and the results were accurate and beautiful. Additionally, the machine operator assured us that a larger number of blocks could be hollowed out of one large plank and then cut. This would be an efficient way to produce a large production run. This approach was by far the most promising production technique.
Laser-cut plywood joint construction, Solid block hollowed out with drill press, Wood block hollowed by CNC machine
12 iterations of prototypes chronologically sequenced
Developing identity design
The brand identity component was an important of the project from the beginning. 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. 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
First laser-cut (burned) version of identity design, literally branded
A Meta Product is realized
As I was working on Mineblock I realized that it represents a new type of object. A specific kind of smart object called a Meta Product, that’s primary value is the network that it provides. As described by the designing Meta Products book, the characteristics of a Meta Product are represented in the venn diagram below. Some challenges to consider when designing Meta Products are:
- Integration of creative process (aiming for harmonious merging of hardware and software)
- data is our raw material (how and when do we turn data into information?)
- Privacy is not just a consideration but a design principle
If you’re interested in designing Meta Products or have information to share about this please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Popular Blogs: creativeapplications.net, vagueterrain.net, rhizome.org, www.generatorx.no, neural.it, infosthetics.com
- Teaching Resources: generative-gestaltung.de, hackingforartists.com
- Online Learning: learn.adafruit.com, earn.sparkfun.com, funprogramming.org, natureofcode.com
- Hardware: www.arduino.cc, raspberrypi.org, adafruit.com, sparkfun.com