m-Box — Electronic Music Box

Toy Design Final Project
Spring 2004

The m-Box is an electronic music box that can be programmed by marking a sheet of paper, and operated by a hand-crank.

Mike Chiaramonte and Matt Slaybaugh

Fun and educational for both children and adults, the m-Box implicitly teaches the basics of tonality and the musical scale by allowing the user to explore the art of music composition without having to know how to play an instrument or even know anything about music.

Intended Audience:
Although the m-Box was originally intended primarily for children ages 6 to 12, a more elaborately fabricated model would also appeal to adults in the form of an executive office toy.

Traditional 'piano roll' music box / organ
The impetus behind the m-Box was simply to build a toy. After studying many toys on the market today and researching how children play, we decided to narrow our focus on an educational toy that was not overtly 'about' teaching. We both are interested in music and composition and independently came up with the idea to have a programmable music box, one that would have no rules outside the physical parameters of the device itself, and one that would be fun to play with regardless of the musical abilities of the user.

'Programmable' music devices, such as player-pianos or the instrument on the right, have existed for centuries. However, it has never been easy for a musical novice to create the score that these instruments follow. The m-Box is intended to be easy to compose for, and being electronic, to have a broader range of sounds than traditional acoustic instruments.

The m-Box affords two kinds of play: composition, and performance.
The user composes songs by making marks with a pen, pencil, or marker on a sheet of paper that wraps around the central cylinder, creating what resembles a piano roll. The position of a mark determines which note will play when the mark passes over the concealed electronic sensor, and the size of the mark detremines the duration and volume of that note.

The user can transcribe familiar songs onto the paper, or can experiment with his or her own melodies and chords.
Input controls for executive office toy version of the m-Box
Once the paper is secured around the central cylinder, the m-Box is operated by turning a hand-crank on the side. By altering the speed at which the cylinder rotates, the user can control how quickly the song plays, can arbitrarily change speed at any time, and can even play the song backward!

Simple control buttons on the face of the m-Box allow the user to select one of the several built-in voices (including piano, violin, 'traditional' music box, and sound effects such as animal sounds and 'gross-out' sounds). Other buttons allow more advanced users to experiment with different musical keys and modes.

m-Box prototype
Prototype and Future Versions:
To test the concept, the prototype does not use markings on paper, but instead uses holes punched through the paper with a pencil.
The prototype is made of a wooden box, roughly one cubic foot in size, on a two-foot high pedestal. A cardboard cylinder fills the box and contains lights that shine through the holes in the paper and trigger electronic sensors in the base of the box. The sensors feed into a laptop computer situated in the pedestal. The note range is the eight notes in a C-major scale, and the cylinder allows up to 32 notes per song.

Children's version of the m-Box
Licensing is available.
Child's Version:
The child's version of the m-Box will be smaller, plastic, and as stated eariler, will rely on markings on paper rather than holes.

The range of notes will be greater, as will the number of possible notes per composition.

This version will be battery-operated.

Executive office toy version of the m-Box
Executive Office Toy Version:
The adult's version of the m-Box will be similar in size to the current prototype, with elegant wooden trimming and will have a range of sounds similar to that of the child's version.

This version will also include a functioning sound horn, reminiscent of early-20th Century grammophones.

The executive office toy version will have the ability to run off of batteries or from a wall-outlet.

Technical System:
Whether from light shining through holes or from light reflected off marks on paper, the central technology in the m-box involves a series of light-sensitive resistors in the base of the box, which send midi data to a simple computer, which then delivers sound to embedded speakers.

Prototype Operation:
The user begins by punching holes in the paper that surrounds the cylinder.
Turning the crank rotates the cylinder at a ratio of 1:4.
A series of lights inside the cylinder shine downward, only passing through where the holes allow it.
Light-sensitive electronics (in the base of the box, below the cylinder) are activated when light passes through holes above them.
The electronics send signals via cable that exits the side of the box.
The signals are received by a midi interface and relayed to a laptop computer which interprets the signals and plays the appropriate tones through the speakers.

© 2004, Mike Chiaramonte and Matt Slaybaugh
All rights reserved