the quest puzzle box


It's what I have traditionally called a "reverse geocache puzzle." It's a gift box, really—sealed from inside, with built in electronics, including GPS. You put something special inside and then give it away, and the person who receives it has to take it to the right GPS coordinates to make it open. The button on the side activates the electronics and turns on the display on top, which tells you only one thing: How far you currently are from the opening location. So you can send the recipient of such a box on a quest, that you design for them, to any destination in the world—whether it's down the street or in South Africa. 


Around 2006, my college roommate and long time friend, Chris, surprised all of us with the news that he was abandoning his lucrative software career in Austin to move to New York and become a penniless film student. And less than a year later, he surprised us even more with the news that he was moving to Paris to marry the French model who'd been starring in his student film productions. And this was such auspicious news that I felt like I just had to go to their wedding, even though it meant overseas travel, and I didn't feel like I could just buy something from the registry at Nordstrom's, or whatever, for a gift. I wanted to do something more special and memorable than that.

So, I decided to try to make a wedding present, and at the time I happened to be fiddling with GPS systems, and also with very basic robotics—servo motors and so forth. And it occurred to me that I might make a box, containing the gift, that couldn't actually be opened at the wedding, and would have to be taken somewhere else. And what came out, at the end, was the first Quest box. I set it to open at a tiny little island off the coast of France, in the English channel, called Bréhat. It's 500 kilometers away from Paris, where they had the wedding, and I knew the bride's family had a house there. It actually took them ten months to figure out where it was supposed to open, physically get out there, and finally open the box.


When I made the original prototype, I went to World Market and bought a carved wooden box with a hinge, then brought it home and sort of clumsily cut openings for the display, and the button, and the GPS antenna, and also a secret "back door" connection port that would allow me to get it open, without breaking anything, in the case of some sort of unforeseen problem. I mounted an Arduino running a sketch I wrote inside, with a custom shield I soldered together, a lithium battery pack, a servo motor, and a mechanism for latching and unlatching the lid from inside. The latch is actually a piece of a chopstick from the Chinese restaurant where Chris and I used to always like to eat. I put a selection of small gifts and mementos inside together with a sentimental letter, then closed it up, took it to Paris for the wedding, and presented it to the happy bride and groom.


19 couples have become engaged with rings hidden in my modern Quest Boxes. Some call it the most romantic gift ever.  The typical proposal quest leads an unsuspecting girlfriend to a romantic place, like the site of your first date or a favorite bed-and-breakfast. The funny thing is that she’ll carry this fabulous ring with her for the whole adventure, but won’t discover that fact until the very end. Won’t that be a sweet surprise? What happens along the journey depends on how you design the quest, but you can count on lots of happy tears at the end.


Wow, I don't even know where to begin. Since this crazy ride began, I have launched a business, set up a website, gotten a patent, defended that patent against a knock-off, made dozens of improvements to the hardware and software, and had so, so much fun. I have helped eighteen couples get engaged. I have sent friends, family, and total strangers on once-in-a-life adventures all over the world, sometimes planning out a sequence of events down to the hour several months in advance.


I recently launched a version of the software that allows you to set temporal constraints on the box's behavior, as well as spatial ones. So you can say, not only do they have to be at this spot for the box to open, they have to be here before this date. Or at this time of day. One thing I'd still really like to do is develop a version with an Iridium satellite modem so the box can report its position back over the web for people to follow along remotely.