What to do with a button box
January 25, 2020 1:55 PM   Subscribe

What can I do with an old (psychology) button box?

I've come into possession of an old button box (the type used for psychology experiments). Pictures here. There's absolutely no branding or naming information on it so I opened it up and the it says "Carnegie Button Box" on the board. I'd love to use it for something if I can, but I don't know what I would need to make it play nice with a modern computer, or if such a hookup would even be possible. Any idea if I could use it for anything, or should I accept that it'll just be a cool useless thing I have?

I have programming experience but am not experienced with hardware and I want to avoid physically modding it in any way. One of the pictures shows the inputs. I have a Dell desktop with Windows 10 that I could keep it hooked up to that has spare USB ports (but no extra VGA or anything that looks like the other ports on the box). I could also hook it up to my Macbook pro but I'd prefer a more permanent hookup to the desktop. I guess I've also gotta find some kind of power cable for it too, but I can't find any info on the internet about this thing. Any idea on whether I could use it with a modern computer and how (what I need to buy to hook it up, how I could get to a point where I can program stuff for it, etc)?
posted by ghostbikes to Technology (6 answers total)
That is a lot of ports for something with three buttons. Your first step would be to figure out the power requirements. Can you check for a label on the bottom of the box? It will often have the voltage requirements and polarity for the power connector on it. Once you've gotten it powered up, I'd maybe plug some old headphones into that audio jack and see if you get fun beeping noises.

The nine-pin d-sub connector on the back is almost certainly standard rs232 serial; you can find rs232<>usb adapters at your local microcenter or online for cheap. Then it's just a matter of trying baud rates and messing around until something that looks like data starts coming out.
posted by phooky at 2:23 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]

I’d be trying to get more information about the board on the assumption that it was some base model design that Carnegie tweaked for their own purposes.

First step (after power) would be to get a serial cable plugged into the DB-9 (nine pin port second from the right top row). You should be able to find an appropriate usb2serial cable online.

Once you can talk to that port you will probably get a prompt and be able try all sorts of interesting commands.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:28 PM on January 25

Just for the record, phooky and I are suggesting the exact same course of action but we’re using alternate names for the actual ports and protocols.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:37 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]

I opened it up again and added a picture of the board. But there's absolutely no information about voltage requirements or anything!
posted by ghostbikes at 2:37 PM on January 25

It seems very likely that this is the device. Or something closely related anyway — they both came from CMU in 1998-1999.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:01 PM on January 25 [2 favorites]

COOL! THANK YOU! I'm going to Microcenter!
posted by ghostbikes at 3:24 PM on January 25

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