'Museum in a Box' Brings Interactive Museum Collections to Classrooms

Museum in a Box, Vimeo
Museum in a Box, Vimeo

Museums hold a wealth of information, but they're not always accessible to everyone. Visiting a museum takes time, money, and opportunity. Even if you make it to a museum, most collections are so vast that only a tiny fraction of the collection is available to view. But a new initiative aims to make it easier for museums to reach schools and communities outside the exhibition gallery.

Museum in a Box is essentially a mini interactive exhibit that can be sent out to schools and other organizations that serve kids. Each box comes with a Raspberry Pi computer, a speaker, an amplifier, and a near-field communication (NFC) reader—like the kind that lets you pay with your phone at retail checkouts. Museums and cultural institutions can then add their own objects for kids to learn about using that technology, whether it's 3D-printed versions of statues from the museum's collections, postcards, puzzles, or anything else curators think kids might want to see. Students can place these objects on top of the box, triggering the NFC reader to start playing a recording related to the object.

How it works from Museum in a Box on Vimeo.

Much of the content museums might want to include in a box might already be digitized on the institution's website or in its collections, but the box provides a tangible, curated way to present it. For a prototype designed for the Smithsonian Institution, for instance, the Museum in a Box team created Frogs in a Box, combining photographs of North American frogs from the Smithsonian collection with a narrated collection of frog-sound field recordings produced by Smithsonian Folkways in 1958. When you tap a postcard featuring a species of frog on the top of the box, it plays audio from Sounds of North American Frogs, including the commentary from a herpetologist and recordings of frog calls.

Though much of the work is still in the prototype phase, the Museum in a Box team has been commissioned to create boxes for institutions like the Barnsley Museums in the UK, the University of Melbourne, and the Swedish National Heritage Board.

A Museum in a Box with red flowers designed for the Jewish Museum London
A Museum in a Box designed for the Jewish Museum London
Museum in a Box

The technology isn't necessarily limited to museum collections, though. Another prototype Museum in a Box, this one aimed at language learners, allows users to place flash cards featuring different words on top of the box to trigger recordings of native speakers pronouncing those words. The team is also developing a pilot for a DIY box that would let kids come up with their own themes and content for a box. You can currently support that project on Crowdfunder.

Surprise! Microsoft Admits That People Are Listening In on Your Cortana and Skype Conversations

mabe123/iStock via Getty Images
mabe123/iStock via Getty Images

In a turn of events that, at this point, probably shocks no one, Microsoft has confessed that human contractors have been listening in on some people's private conversations via Skype and Cortana.

Vice first broke the news on the privacy breach earlier this month, after a contractor passed along documents, screenshots, and actual audio files of some conversations. “The fact that I can even share some of this with you shows how lax things are in terms of protecting user data,” the contractor, whose name was withheld (for obvious reasons), told Motherboard. Unlike Apple’s recent Siri snafu, these conversations didn’t include potential criminal activity, but they did catch intimate exchanges about weight loss, love, and relationship problems.

Also unlike Apple: Microsoft is not suspending its practices. Instead, the tech monolith has updated its privacy policy to clarify that humans might, in fact, be eavesdropping on you.

“We realized, based on questions raised recently, that we could do a better job of clarifying that humans sometimes review this content,” a Microsoft representative told Vice. Before, the Skype website had mentioned that your content could be analyzed in order to improve the technology, but it never explicitly stated that humans would be listening to it.

Microsoft only records Skype conversations that use its translation features, in order to “help the translation and speech technology learn and grow,” according to the Skype FAQ section. If you’re not using translation features, your sweet nothings are reportedly as private as you want them to be. The updated FAQ section also now states that “Microsoft employees and vendors” may be transcribing the translated audio, and the procedures are “designed to protect users’ privacy, including taking steps to de-identify data, requiring non-disclosure agreements with vendors and their employees,” and more.

But Cortana’s data gathering isn’t limited to translation. According to its support page, Microsoft can collect your voice data literally any time you “use your voice to say something to Cortana or invoke skills.” If that worries you, we recommend spending some time adjusting the settings on your Microsoft Privacy Dashboard.

[h/t Vice]

Amazon Is Making It Easier for Sellers to Donate Returned or Unsold Items Instead of Trashing Them

ronstik/iStock via Getty Images
ronstik/iStock via Getty Images

After mailing back an unwanted Amazon order or bringing it to a drop-off location, you may assume your return will find its way to a good home. But not every item returned to Amazon is re-listed on the website. Many third-party sellers working through Amazon simply toss returned products in the trash along with any surplus goods they can't sell. That's about to change: As CNBC reports, the retailer will make its new Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) Donations program the default option for independent shops based in the U.S. and the UK.

Starting in September 2019, sellers that have unwanted returns or unsold items sitting in an Amazon warehouse can depend on the company to donate them to a good cause. In the U.S., products that are eligible for donation will be sent to various nonprofits through a charity group called Good360, and in the UK, groups including Newlife, Salvation Army, and Barnardo will distribute the goods.

“We know getting products into the hands of those who need them transforms lives and strengthens local communities,” Alice Shobe, director of Amazon in the Community, said in a statement. “We are delighted to extend this program to sellers who use our fulfillment services.”

Amazon charges independent sellers 50 cents to ship unsold items back to them and just 15 cents to throw them away, meaning that donating or trying to resell returned items wasn't always cost-effective for businesses. Amazon reportedly wasted 293,000 products over a nine-month period in just one French distribution center alone.

The company now aims to incentivize sellers to donate their unsold and returned inventory by making it the cheaper option, according to sellers who spoke to CNBC. As part of this program, Amazon will also manage the logistics and work with charities in an effort to "streamline the donation process for independent sellers."

The Fulfillment by Amazon Donations program will be the default for U.S. and UK sellers starting on September 1, but stores will still have the opportunity to opt out if they wish.

[h/t CNBC]

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