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Making the Musical Ballpit

Musical Ballpit

The Musical Ballpit was a ballpit that made sounds as you moved in it, which deathboy and I created for EMFCamp 2016 in the summer.

My inspiration for the musical ballpit came from a talk by Di Mainstone at Dorkbot in London last December.

At that Dorkbot, I remember there were talks about emotive wearables, molerats, and snowflakes and I attempted making a sputnik bauble.

But the talk that inspired me the most was during the Open dorks section, by Di Mainstone, who has created wonderful projects such as the human harp on Clifton Suspension Bridge. She spoke about how she was looking for collaborators to work on a project that would make sounds as you moved through sand. I wondered about this, and then concluded that making sounds as you moved through balls in a ballpit would surely be easier.

I suggested it to deathboy, who was also at Dorkbot that night, even though I thought it was a bit of a silly idea. He convinced me that we could make it possible and we should take it to EMFCamp the following August.

I started telling friends about the musical ballpit, and found I was quite enthusiastic about the idea, and realised it was something I should actually try to make happen.

I tried out three different ballpits that were open to adults early that year - one at an immersive theatre event, one at the Museum of Happiness, and one at the Cadbury's Creme Egg cafe.

I concluded that the ballpit needed to be at least two people wide plus a bit, and at least one person tall plus a bit, and the balls should at least up to my knee.

I read guides on how to make a ballpit, such as Jeff Killian's How to build a ballpit and used the ballpit calculator to calculate how many balls were needed. I contemplated making a ballpit out of PVC pipes and tarpaulin, but was worried it might not be strong enough, so ended up purchasing a paddling pool. The problem with using a paddling pool as opposed to making it yourself was that it was difficult to get the exact size I wanted, particularly as paddling pools tend to be not very deep. In the end, I settled on a paddling pool that was 2.4m x 1.4m x 0.5m. The great thing about the paddling pool was that it was very easy to put up, and I was able to put it up by myself, and it seemed quite strong.

It took up my entire living room though! I could no longer fully open the door even.

Musical Ballpit

I spent a long time thinking about what kind of balls to purchase. The kind that seemed cheapest and easiest to get hold of were smaller than I wanted and were able to be crushed, so in the end I went for 7.5cm balls, that were commercial grade and uncrushable.

deathboy and I met up at the London Hackspace a few times to discuss the musical ballpit and how it would work. We decided on having a camera that would watch over the ballpit and sounds would be triggered when motion was detected. Detecting motion we did by seeing when there had been a change of colour, and we decided to have a number of different locations in the ballpit that a sound could be triggered, so that we could have different sounds.

I also decided that we should have an interesting interface for the musical ballpit. For this, I used a Makey Makey and connected wires from it to different objects:
  • A plastic goat, which I painted with conductive paint, and then taped a wire to its foot.

  • A CD, which I painted patterns on with conductive paint, and made patterns with copper tape, and then taped a wire onto the back.

  • A metal harmonica, which I used silver tape to tape the two sections together and then soldered a wire to the bottom.

  • A metal wind up angel, which wasn't quite conductive enough, so I added extra silver tape to it.

  • A whoopee cushion key-ring, which I painted bits of with conductive paint, and then soldered a wire to the key-ring part.

  • A floppy disk, which I stuck some silver tape on the label, and then soldered a wire to the back.

All the wires and the makey-makey were then hidden in a box folder, which had a hole for the USB cable coming out of it.

Ballpit interface

Then, there was the the toy fairy wand, which I put a wire up the middle, and then conductive tape around the end of it. I also made a spare fairy wand in case the first one broke.

To choose a sound set, you would touch the tip of the fairy wand onto one of the objects:

  • Goat = Animal sounds.

  • CD = Dubstep.

  • Harmonica = musical instruments.

  • Angel = angelic sounds.

  • Whoopee cushion = funny sounds.

  • Floppy disk = 8 bit sounds, computer game sound effects.

People could select a sound set, then get into the ballpit, and trigger the sounds in that sound set by moving around.

For example, if they selected the goat, when they got into the ballpit, if they moved in one location, there would be a mooing sound, and if they moved in another, there would be a neighing sound.

The makey-makey hidden in the box folder was connected by USB to a laptop. The laptop was also connected to speakers and to a camera (attached to a tripod).

The musical ballpit had become a reality! I jumped in and was happy!

Video on YouTube made by deathboy, where you can see it working: Musical Ballpit.

Musical Ballpit Sign


Me in the ballpit:
Person in the Ballpit

I will write more about EMFCamp and the Musical Ballpit in another post.

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