Have you always wanted to bring the experience of waiting for the Red Line right into your living room? OK, maybe not. But the hot new gift for the transit enthusiast in your life does that and more, in colorful, decorative fashion.
MBTAgifts, the officially licensed shop for T merchandise, is lighting up the holidays with a new prototype that it plans to sell on a larger scale in the coming months: a real-time LED map of the region’s sprawling subway system that’s compact enough to fit on a desk or bedside table.
“Check out a prototype of our newest product,” the gift shop tweeted, “a real-time, WiFi, LED MBTA map.”
Called “TrainTrackr,” the digital maps were designed and created by Griffin van Horne and Richard Hawthorn of Cambridge Hackspace, a nonprofit in Somerville that provides its members with a physical workspace and tools such as laser cutters and 3-D printers so they can tinker with personal projects.
The square maps, which resemble a Lite-Brite, show the live movements of the T’s Orange, Green, Red, and Blue Line trains as they pass through the transit system. The blinking lights let users “quickly check the status of your line before you leave in the morning,” according to a product description on the project’s website.
Hawthorn, a freelance software developer and founder of Cambridge Hackspace, said the boards are able to give people a live look at what’s happening along the T by pulling train-location data from the MBTA’s public API, information that’s made publicly available to developers online.
“The board has a WiFi chip onboard that connects to the server, downloads the train location information . . . and then [displays it] on the LED lights,” he said in an e-mail. “This happens every minute, so you get to see the trains moving through the transport network in real-time.”
Hawthorn said he was inspired to launch the color-coded maps with van Horne because they combined a few of his passions: public transit and visualizing data using electronics.
“I’ve made weather boards for showing the local weather and graphs for rainfall on LEDs,” he said. “I’m currently also designing a board which shows how far I have run in a week, all on LEDs much like the train tracker.”
Van Horne, a Brookline native and board member at Cambridge Hackspace, said he was enlisted by Hawthorn to assemble a batch of the MBTA tracker boards to sell locally. Once the boards were assembled, he designed a laser-cut stand for them and wrote out directions for setting up the maps.
“From there, Rich and I have worked together to sort out all of the other details that it’s taken to make TrainTrackr a reality,” he said in an e-mail. “It’s been exciting to work with Richard and help develop this project into a tangible, scalable product that people can soon have in their homes.”
Due to the size of the boards and budget constraints, not every T stop was added this time around. But future versions are likely to include the entire map.
A similar project to TrainTrackr was introduced four years ago — but it wasn’t for sale. In 2015, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student built a real-time LED MBTA map that covered a large portion of his dorm room wall, using the same publicly available data.
Hawthorn, who recently moved back to the United Kingdom, said he hopes to go beyond the T and make maps for other subway systems. He already has prototypes for London and Stockholm, as well as half-finished designs for New York City’s and San Francisco’s public transit systems.
For now, only a few prototypes of the T maps will probably be available for sale for the holidays, through MBTAgifts. But the duo is building out the maps and ordering more. Those interested in eventually getting their hands on one of the digital maps can sign up on TrainTrackr’s website to receive notifications about the projects’ progress and rollout.
Or, to get a sample, they can keep an eye on MBTAgifts’ Twitter account and pop into the brick-and-mortar shop to see one that’s currently on display.
“People are really digging them,” said Beaucher of MBTAgifts, which gives a portion of its product sales to the T. “Once they see it’s real-time and see it change, they glow.”Steve Annear can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.