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Building a Multiple iPod Charger

One of the cool things we’re doing for the Walker’s upcoming exhibition Picasso and American Art is significantly increasing our iPod audio tour capacity. For the exhibit we were able to get 25 iPod Video’s, and like our normal iPod audio tours, we will be letting visitors use them for free. The same content is […]

One of the cool things we’re doing for the Walker’s upcoming exhibition Picasso and American Art is significantly increasing our iPod audio tour capacity. For the exhibit we were able to get 25 iPod Video’s, and like our normal iPod audio tours, we will be letting visitors use them for free. The same content is also available on Art on Call.

This presents a bit of a challenge however. Up until now we’ve only had four iPod Nano’s to worry about, and plugging a few into a computer or two to charge isn’t that big a deal. Now however we have 25 of them to deal with, and there certainly aren’t enough USB ports to go around. The goal was to find a way to charge most of the iPods, do it in a limited space, and do it for as cheap as possible.

My solution was to buy three USB hubs and use them just for charging. We don’t really need to have them connected to the computer to sync with, we just want the power. This turned out to be harder than I thought. I went through a few USB hubs trying to get the iPods just to charge off the supplied AC adaptor. Each hub I tried didn’t allow this. It would only charge when the hub was connected to a computer via USB. I can’t fathom a reason why they limited it like this, as the power comes from AC on the hub, not from USB. Whether the hub was connected to a computer should not really dictate whether power could be supplied to the device or not. Alas, there was no cost efficient way around this.

So I had no choice, if I wanted to charge via any hub, I had to connect the hub to a computer. Thankfully we did have a computer near where our iPod storage is. Except it only has two open USB ports, not the three I needed. Another stumbling block. But then the thought occured to daisy chain the hubs. In essence, the USB cable that was supposed to go to the computer for each hub would plug into one of the other hubs instead. The last in the chain would then plug into the computer. Basically we could connect all of the iPods to a computer with one USB cord, regardless of how many hubs we had. And that’s what we did, as it worked perfectly:

One interesting feature of this is it allows us to mount all of these iPods at once, as you can see here. This actually makes adding and editing content on all of them a breeze. So in the end, perhaps all of the troubles were a blessing.

Total cost for this: $60. It may not look the prettiest, but sometimes when you’re trying to be frugal, getting something that just works is what counts.

  • Joe says:

    You, my friend, have a lot of ipods on your hands.

  • taylor says:

    Yeah, no kidding. That’s a lot of iPods.

  • Brent! Thanks for this. We are just starting our deploy here and this will help a lot – we just started building ours.

  • This is one of the coolest things I have seen in a while. I really love how they all mount on the computer. It’s not pretty, but it sure is geeky cool. +2 tech points!

  • This is great! Thanks for sharing, Brent. Do you have any pics of how you manage your inventory of 25 nanos at the admissions desks? How do you keep them organized? Do you take id/credit card as a deposit to make sure the nanos get return? (The MCA’s got 35 and i’m brainstorming better front lines solutions)

  • This is probably the hardest part, the admin of it all. Our visitors services staff handles all of that, and with the huge demand for iPods it has been difficult to get a good working system in place. We do take drivers license and credit card as collateral for the iPods. That has worked well for us thus far.

    The biggest issue is going to be keeping them charged if they’re constantly out like ours are, as well as keeping track of which iPods are out at any given time to keep tabs on it all. It basically takes a dedicated person to do this, depending on demand.

    Our setup is literally a box with padding and all the iPods in it. We would really like to build a box with slots in it that are numbered to make it easier for our front line staff, but that will need to wait until after our current exhibition is over. Needless to say we have learned a lot from this. It’s certainly not as easy as making a simple charger like you see above and expecting it all just to magically work.

  • We’ve been using two file folders to hold them all in. In theory, one nano and one set of ear buds per slot. But the charging and the credit cards and the santizing of the ear buds! And the teaching everyone how to use the nanos! It’s a juggling act.

  • We did two things to solve these issues. One, we went ahead and got over-ear padded headphones. We still will give out earbuds if people want them but I’d say 90% prefer the over-ear ones. This cuts down on sanitizing.

    As for teaching people how to use the iPod, our first track on the iPod is an instructional piece called “How to use this iPod”. If someone doesn’t know we play that for them (if they can’t figure out how to play it themselves) and this has cut down a lot on people asking how to use them (we still get a few who need help, but this has cut it down a lot).

    I agree it’s a juggling act. In many ways it helps prove our original idea of letting people use their cell phones in the galleries for the same content. Everyone knows how to use their own phone, and we don’t have to make any transaction for them to use it.

  • David Witt says:

    hi Brent-

    Nice lo-tech approach! I thought i’d share some of my experiences with doing SFMOMA’s iPod tour content and upload: Apple was able to secure a small vendor (sorry I don’t have their name) to create a charging rack for the 100 iPods(!) in SFMOMA’s inventory. The issue that I have consistently run into is that there appears to be a maximum of 20 iPods that can be mounted. (Looking at your screenshot, I counted 19, so your site is consistent with this finding). Also, your screenshot shows mounted disks for the OS, but not within iTunes, which may or may not show all mounted disks (can’t remember offhand if I saw any logic to this, though I do remember a problem the other way, when the ‘enable disk use’ option somehow became disabled on some previously set iPods)

    The bottom line is that, despite some back and forth with Apple, the iPod is a consumer device, and as such, it has its limits in doing things like this–your solution works as well as a bespoke charging rack, and for less money–the only caveat is that it won’t scale up with a larger inventory of iPods;>

    Regarding other issues, the iPod is at its best for shorter tours, as longer ones require more scrolling, which isn’t quite as handy as a keypad-based system. Also, while its a handy feature to be able to tag images to audio stops, the square format and small size diminishes the readability of images–Picasso isn’t so bad, but the work of abstract artists such as Brice Marden doesn’t come across as well.

  • David, thanks for the info. Had no idea about a 20 iPod mounting limit. That’s good to know.

    We still use iPods for our permanent collection, but they aren’t tours per se. It’s sort of a “create your own” tour. There’s probably 100+ stops on those iPods, divided into categories. People can pick and choose what works they want to listen to for more info. We don’t force a path on people.

    For Picasso though there are, I think, 17 stops, so it’s much less info to deal with.

  • Danny says:

    Hi… we are looking at a solution to charge up 30 BlackBerry devices using USB. Could you please let me know the Hubs that you have used to support your iPod solution. Thanks v much.

  • @Danny: They’re D-Link 7 port hubs. We have 3 of them daisy chained together.

  • John says:

    Do you happen to know the vendor of that 100 iPod charger? I am starting a collection for my classroom. Ideally I want to get 25 – 30 iPod Nanos (a class set), so I can put audio books on them.

  • Trent says:

    Apple has a regular iPod charger that charges any usb device without having to connect it to the computer-only one outlet, so you could of used that with the 3 usb hubs. here it is:

  • We thought of that, and it doesn’t work unfortunately.

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