An hour with… Audio Kinetica – the Ball Machine

Individual Science Centre exhibits usually get no more than a few minutes of attention, but spending a whole hour near one can be interesting…

Audio Kinetica is a large glass box, inside of which a number of balls (I counted eighteen) are rolling around on wire tracks, knocking on bells, pushing levers, cascading over xylophones and doing a lot more than I can describe here. A vertical conveyor belt picks up the balls at the bottom and releases them at the top, sending them on their journey through a series of T-junctions that introduce a bit of randomness to their path.

Audio Kinetica - the Ball MachineThere are only two possible manipulations with this exhibit: a lever that, when pulled, blocks the flow of balls somewhere near the top; and a wheel that, when turned, lifts and drops a hammer onto a lever that then catapults a ping-pong ball into a wire funnel – sometimes.

Kids and adults alike approach the ball machine with a look of curious excitement. It looks and sounds attractive with its lights and colours, and the aparent chaos of wires and bells is intriguing people from afar. Once they are close, they are hooked.

Some families, even groups of kids without adults, can spend ten minutes or more watching, tracing paths, anticipating the arrival of the next ball, cheering it on, accumulating balls to release, discussing the tracks, waiting for a balancing holding tray to fill…

While I sit here, observing, a small boy is running back and forth around the machine, desperate not to miss anything, shouting “Daddy, there, there!” He’d been here a few minutes before but was dragged away by his father who told him that “inside there is better”, referring to the iSpace exhibition. They were soon back to watch the ball machine.

Three school boys are taking turns on the ping-pong ball catapult, while their teacher is trying to explain what’s going on. After several unsuccessful tries, the teacher figures that it’s just not working and shoos the kids on… only for them to come back for another go twenty seconds later. The teacher needs to shoo them twice more, although – or maybe because – they never manage to make the ball shoot high enough. (It’s actually possible to get the ball into the wire funnel, but I had to try several times and develop a special technique myself… ; )

Another three boys – two friends and a brother, I think – are very vocal: “It’s the long-lost marble machine! It’s picking up marbles already, and then it will go either way up there, depending.” “Let’s concentrate to see where it’s going!” “Oh it needs more balls to come here to push it down before it can move again.” “Ayoh, come here, I know how to get into the bowl!” And when a ball fell from high onto a small metal plate and bounced back, flying into a basket further inside the machine: “Eh, very accurate leh!”

…  I wish I had this at home!

This exhibit is packed with opportunities for learning, discovery, hypothesis building and observation of all sorts of aspects of physics, and the visitors are naturally drawn to do all that, while having fun doing it. The one thing I did not see anybody do was to read the description of the exhibit. They didn’t have to!

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