Project Inspiration

For my final project, I am want to create a dynamic sculptural-like device that allows a user to interact with music in a new way. My initial inspiration for this project came from the original implementation of frequency spectrum audio visualizers. These visualizers break the audio spectrum in to discrete chunks, and adjust bar levels which correspond to the amplitude of each range. They usually also include bright colors that correspond to bar height, or to distinguish the each range. The fancier implementations added an additional level of information by sustaining a bar at the highest peak (for each range) for an extended level of time, while the real time analysis would continue. This can be seen as the white lines in the below image.

Frequency Spectrum Audio Visualizer

I always envisioned that the colors bars where lifting up the white lines, where they would levitate for a second, before falling back down. As I started thinking about it, I realized that we have some innate fascination with objects that appear to defy gravity. If you have ever seen the rock sculptures that people build next to Boulder Creek in the summer, you will understand the intrigue of balance/levitation that I am attempting to describe.  I want to try and capture this quality, and incorporate the the aesthetic in my project.

Crazy Gravity Defying Rock Sculpture

To do this, I am currently toying with the idea of levitating a row of ping pong balls using fans. Just like the audio visualizer above, the ping pong ball heights would be dynamically adjusted to the changing frequency of input music. I am thinking that it will be possible to have a separate clear plastic tube for each ball, and then the fan speed could be adjusted to move the ball up and down the tube. I believe this will be the critical aspect of my project, and if it does not work, the project will not be feasible at all. My plan is to prototype a single tube/fan/ball setup this in the coming week to determine if I should move forward with my idea. It may be possible to do it without a tube, similar to the classic hairdryer ping pong ball levitation experiment, but I am not sure that I would be able to control the rising and falling of the ball fast/accurate enough to implement an appealing visual experience.

My final project would likely include bright RGB LEDs to mimic the aesthetic of the original visualizers. I would like to hide the fans in a base below, but have a frosted acrylic top so the lights would nicely diffuse across the surface (and maybe light up the tube). I have also been thinking about ways to make the final product interesting without inputting music to be analyzed. It occurred to me that it could be cool to have an alternate “boot mode”, which allows the user to conduct the height of each ping pong ball using their hands. A quick initial search shows that it is possible to buy IR rangefinders on EBay for a couple dollars a piece, which could make this idea a reality. Stay tuned for some hand sketches and an update on the outcome of my prototyping.


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5 Comments. Leave new

  • David Holliman
    May 4, 2016 12:54 pm

    The integration of something as organic as rock stacking and the early electronics era of audio visualizers is awesome. I believe combining these areas of thought will lend you a lot of creative space to design various dynamic audio concepts. With the great work you put into this project, it would be great to see you continue to experiment with this design space.

  • Samantha Maierhofer
    March 1, 2016 11:16 am

    Awesome idea and can’t wait to see it come together! I agree that you might need to use tubing to control the ping pong ball’s height (what happens if you have 2 open fan and try to levitate 2 balls next to each other? Anyway, I think the end result has a lot of potential!

  • Mathew Tabor
    March 1, 2016 8:56 am

    This seems like a really novel idea, I love it. The premise of mimicking that visualizer with physical objects is really neat. Ping pong balls could work great, definitely something worth prototyping, although I agree with you I would think you’d need a tube around them, there could be a lot of air interference between columns and just the environment. When I read your post I also envisioned a water-based one, making a mini-Bellagio synched to whatever input music you give it. That’s probably (definitely) tougher with water pumps and what not, but could be interesting as well.

  • Your inspiration for this project is rich with a unique blend of nature and technology. Your description of levitating ping pong balls in context of rock sculptures and music makes me imagine a lively visual performance that any lotto hopper would envy. It seems you have already put a fair amount of thought into the technical solution behind the final product. I’m looking forward to seeing an update soon. Have you considered choosing slow music to overcome the issue of pace mentioned?

  • Peter Brunsgaard
    February 26, 2016 12:39 pm

    Thomas, this looks super cool! I did a similar project freshman year, and am more than happy to help give some advice on how to go about completing this. I imagine you could find computer fans (40mm are pretty small) that are powerful enough to levitate a ping pong ball and you could control it with a PWM pin to change the heights. I’m a big fan of the levitating/defying gravity aesthetic.


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