If you looked at some of my other projects in my blog or portfolio you have probably already noticed that I like playing with photography. Either in the political way we perceive images or in the personal way that pictures are attached to memories, as a designer, maker, producer, or whatever its the name for what I do, I find it fun to create with it.

Having that said, my boyfriend’s birthday was coming. And I wanted to give him a special gift. Not only because he was turning 28, but because he got a job in the city and made it happen to move to New York so we could be together – and he was arriving only a couple of days before his birthday. My boyfriend is a musician, so since the beginning of our relationship he frequently sends me audios of him playing songs that somehow relate to what we are living in that moment.

Meanwhile, I partnered with my colleague and friend Jenna who is an awesome designer (check her work here), to make our Physical Computing midterm project. I was inspired by this context and came up with the Photo Jukebox idea. She loved it and we decided to make it happen.

You check below we did it! Further on this post I’ll explain how.


My main inspiration came from a project that a colleague at ITP did. Amitabh is a genius when it comes to Physical Computing and Arduino (check his work here), and once he built a jukebox that played specific songs once you placed a related acrylic sheet on top of his machine. The acrylic sheets were really fun and were based in images of the bands that would then be played – as you can see below.

So his project triggered me (thanks Amitabh!!!!): what if we could put personal pictures there? I mean, today the way we interact with personal photographs is mainly digital, posting in our Social Media. At the same time, the few ones that are printed and take a physical form, stay in barely touched photo albums, or in beautiful but not at all interactive portraits. How fun would it be to have a machine like Amitabh’s one, but with a different approach and design, that could enable for the user a unique way to interact with pictures, listen to music, and trigger good memories or feelings attached to those photographed moments.

And so I started sketching. I wanted the design to have a vintage look, and be shaped kind of like a made with wood, giving this kind of Victrola feel.

The idea was to use the back of each photograph to close certain circuits, acting like pressed buttons. Consequently the button that was pressed should trigger a specific song related to it.  I knew we could easily do that by using copper tape.

Testing the concept

Thus, we started and getting the materials to be able to create and test the circuit and the code.

In order to do this first step we needed a major item that allows Arduino to actually play music and read an SD card without having to use a computer: an MP3 shield.

As we were really excited to get started with the project, Jenna and me ran to Thinkersphere and purchased the geetech.com MP3 shield without previously testing its library which turned out to be an immediately regrettable decision. There was very little documentation, the provided link to the datasheet was broken, and the library—incredibly—didn’t work.


Luckily, Aaron (our miracle-worker of a resident) was able to help us hack the Adafruit mp3 shield library to work with our questionable Tinkersphere purchase. Unfortunately, that only opened the floodgates of pain and suffering, as there was still a lot of crazy mp3 shield logic deal with (delays, booleans for each song, the concept of interrupts and how they apply to serial communication…). Eventually, many office hours (thanks Yuli and Chino) and even more if statements got the job done. However, we weren’t able to figure out how to get combinations of switch states to allow for more songs.

preview of the madness

We tested the code+circuit with regular push buttons to test the code, and it worked!


So we threw together a rough prototype with the copper tape buttons to test the actual technical concept.

And it also played the songs as expected!

Creating the Enclosure

With the circuit working, it was time to work on the enclosure. We bought a utensil tray from The Container Store (shout out to this video), and laser cut an interface, first with cardboard:

Then with acrylic:

Building the circuit

This was a really challenging part. How to attach and solder the buttons, battery, potentiometer, on/of switch in an actual stable way so it could become a durable gift?

Until now, we have been mainly prototyping, playing with soldering but not actually worried on making it fit and not be interrupted or spoiled by a simple shake. We started working by ourselves, and after tons of hours came up with a working circuit. Still we had a lot of issues and were panicking over its instability.

So this is when you book office hours, and Aaron (the miracle Physical Computing talented resident) came to save us again.

He explained that, for final prototypes, you should ALWAYS work with multi-stranded wire. They are more flexible, fit better into enclosures and won’t break that easily once soldered. Also, he showed us some german awesome plugs (the orange/transparent thing you see in the pic) that can join multiple wires. Thus we could attach all our grounds and our 5V’s sides very easily.

Check below how was our life before and after Aaron’s help.

And our baby was born!

Jenna and me were both very proud of what we accomplished working together in a week and a half.

The gift was amazing and my boyfriend loved it.

It will definitely be part of our living room, sitting in the coffee table right next to the sofa. It will be perfect for when we feel nostalgic and want to going through our special moments. Also, when inviting guests, I believe they will feel curious towards it and may play with our Photo Jukebox. With that, they will sure learn more about our story together, and feel, through photography and music, a bit of our love.







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