If you were fascinated by marble runs as a kid, then you'll want to take a look at a new machine created by artist Niklas Roy. The Pneumatic Sponge Ball Accelerator is an interactive installation that sucks foam balls though transparent tubes at high speed. Users can control the direction of the airflow.

Roy calls himself an "inventor of useless things." Although his creations may have no actionable use, they provide entertainment and intrigue to their viewers. By way of reference, the Space Replay floating sphere that records and replays the sounds around it, and Emilie Baltz and Carla Diana's Lickestra musical ice cream might fit into this category too.

The Pneumatic Sponge Ball Accelerator is inspired by particle accelerators such as the LHC. Roy explains that although they can be huge machines with "super-cool, cryptic names," they are often incomprehensible to ordinary people and it is not possible to actually see what happens inside them with your own eyes.

"As I’m a fan of science and physics in particular, I find it a pity that the current particle accelerators make the observation of the little speedy particles so complicated," says Roy on his website. "So when the Director of the Tschumi Foundation approached me and asked me if I’d like to build a machine inside their beautiful pavilion located in the center of a roundabout in Groningen, I saw my chance: I decided to construct a machine which would bring the tremendous joy of particle acceleration to everyone."

The machine comprises a large transparent box, the inner workings of which can be seen from the outside. Two transparent bubbles (Bubble A and Bubble B) are joined by a long track of airtight pipes. There is 150 m (492 ft) of tubing through which the balls travel and Roy says they hit speeds of up to 4 m/s (13 ft/s). The foam balls are moved from one bubble to the other using a vacuum cleaner to change the air pressure and shoot them through the tubes.

"When the vacuum cleaner is sucking air out of Bubble B, it lowers the air pressure inside this bubble, which will be equalized immediately by the incoming air from Bubble A," explains Roy. "This creates an airflow between the bubbles, which entrains the particles."

Given that all of the balls would end up in one of the bubbles eventually, Roy built a switch mechanism into the machine to change the direction of the airflow. The switch is simply a mechanism that blocks certain pipe combinations whilst creating others.

The machine is activated by people placing their hand over a touch sensor. This sets the airflow running and users can reverse the direction of the airflow by simply touching the sensor again.

"Visually, it is a very impressive experience to see all the balls race through the pipes at very high speed," says Roy. "They are so fast, it is almost impossible to follow them. But when you reverse the direction of the airflow, hundreds of balls slow down all at the same time, just to speed up in the other way one moment later."

Roy decorated the machine to make it appealing to use. The sensor glows in the shape of a hand whilst a huge illuminated arrow makes sure that it can't be missed. An LED spotlight switches from red to green if someone touches the sensor and black/yellow adhesive tape completes the high-tech industrial look.

The Pneumatic Sponge Ball Accelerator is an exciting and imaginative creation and Roy's enthusiasm for it is evident. He's even gone so far as to send a camera through the machine.

The video below shows the Pneumatic Sponge Ball Accelerator in action.

Source: Niklas Roy

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