Purely Mechanical Display Uses 804 Balls To Create a Kinetic Display

breaking wave kinetic sculpture

Whoa. That’s all we have to say about this art installation.

Oops, did we say art? Don’t let that three letter word scare you, because this project called Breaking Wave is nothing short of an absolutely incredible, fully mechanical, machine.

It’s kind of hard to tell in the picture, but there are 804 rusty spheres hanging from cables which make up the pixels of this display. Each of those cables could be attached to a servo for a very simple, digital-to-analog display — it’d be expensive, but you could display anything. But no, that’s not how this works. Instead of each of those cables is wrapped around a different size drum or roller, which are all connected to a large central hub motor driving a cam.

As the beastly hub-motor spins, the display morphs and changes shapes. It is all pre-programmed manually by varying the sizes of the rollers and the lengths of the cables, a mind numbing task of its own. What’s more, because it is three dimensional, you can only see the patterns if you’re standing in the right place at the right time.

And the artist statement? Actually kind of makes sense:

Breaking Wave tells the story of the search for patterns, and the surprising results that come by changing our point of view. 804 suspended spheres move in a wave-like formation. When the wave crests and breaks, the balls hover momentarily in a cloud. From almost anywhere in the room, this cloud is purely chaotic, but step into one of two hidden spots, and this apparent chaos shows a hidden pattern.

Scientists search through billions of experimental data points in order to find patterns to develop new drugs, to treat Multiple Sclerosis, Cancer, and other diseases. Without a particular framework or perspective, these are just 0’s and 1’s, with no form or information. But with the perspective of an understanding of molecular dynamics, these data points create a clear picture about the hidden dynamics within the body, and allow scientists to craft drugs to successfully treat these diseases.

And how it was made:

[Thanks Scott!]


  1. ioch says:

    I amazed. Its all implemented in hardware. I didn’t knew someone still do this anymore. I thought its all arduinos and steppers nawadays

  2. Matt says:

    There you go. The description had me amazed, the video left my jaw on the floor.

  3. hackliptik says:

    Holy cow. That’s more beautiful than the innards of a 19th century steam machine. And that means a lot.

  4. Mike says:

    This looks like CGI.

  5. foolishdane says:

    No doubt that this is very impressive, I wonder what the price tag is on this. But I think it would have been cooler if they had used 804 small motors. Then they could have made an unlimited number of shapes and the person looking at i would not have been able to tell he difference. There would just be a lot more shapes to look at.

    • Truth says:

      804 motors, forwards and backwards every 80 seconds, would be a maintenance nightmare.

      The real elegance is making this object with with one motor, it’s MTBF will be a long long time, which I think is something that the company and creators would want. The last thing a company wants is a failed motor once a week.

    • metai says:

      You are missing the point. Of course this can be done using a motor on every single string. And it has been done already, and they don’t fail to impress: See the kinetic installations in the BMW Museum, and in Changi Airport. And while they are beautiful to look at, behind the curtains they are “just” engineered.

      The point of this one, however, is that it is not only entirely mechanical, and not only driven from one single motor, but also designed and constructed in such a (mathematically) beautiful way that it all comes together to create multi-stage moving forms. There is not only beauty in the result, but also beauty in the construction. You know, just like there’s beauty in some code.

    • Michael says:

      Not sure you understand the meaning of “art”.

  6. Mr. T says:

    Very impressive, I think it would be could if rgb led’s were implemented into the balls.

  7. James says:

    I’m shocked they are using those linear rails. I think they’re around $100 each! For the accuracy that this requires (ie, not much), this could have been done much much cheaper.

    • Smeeg says:

      Dollar value is typically (but not necessarily) proportional to MTBF.
      Your kinetic art piece is not so impressive if it ends up as a snarled mess of cables and bearings.
      And it’s really not so nice if it squeaks.

  8. Craig says:

    This is the coolest thing I have seen this year. Truly inspiring. The amount of coordination in bringing together a project like this is just beauty in action.

  9. YourIEEEmom says:

    There are a hundred ways to do this exact same thing, I applaud the way this particular machine was implemented.

  10. Andy Oliver says:

    They could’ve used stepper motors and 555 timers.

  11. t-bone says:

    I’d like to nominate them to receive the Internetz for using one motor. Stunning work.

    Wood balls aren’t going to be all that heavy. What happens in the winter when it gets drafty in there? A tangle could be disastrous.

  12. CheezBurger says:

    for those saying it is CGI. I blame the pixel look in some scenes in an attempt to make the colors look more dynamic. But i totally believe that the whole thing is legit.

  13. JDN says:

    That’s so fake. Look, you can see the strings ;-)

    Seriously, can you imagine the noise from 800 steppers all going at once? It would significantly detract from the piece. Good job.

  14. Grumpy Old Coot says:

    A beautiful, smaller, and smarter reimplementation of the sculpture at Changi International Airport.

  15. Ehhh says:

    This is clearly a copy of Reuben Margolin’s work http://www.reubenmargolin.com/waves/index.html

    • Smorges Borges says:

      That is a very large body of very similar prior art. Thanks for the link.

    • metai says:

      I honestly don’t think it is a “copy”. It is certainly inspired by existing kinetic sculptures, but at a certain point you need to let go of the concept of “prior art”, especially when it comes down to a mechanical system of pulleys — those have been done for centuries. Also, if you look at Reuben’s work, the motions are “repetetive”, whereas this one oscillates between two clearly defined states.

  16. JRDM says:

    This is very impressive. I probably would have just done a bunch of motors, but choreographing them that way would have been a big headache. And the power requirement probably would have been enormous.

  17. j s says:

    They wrote the simulation software in Processing…

  18. gj says:

    cute mini galaxy

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