Galactic Dimension

Interactive Installation

Made for Phæno Wolfsburg, 2015

Galactic Dimension is a supersized pinball machine which I’ve built for Phæno – an amazing science center in the German city of Wolfsburg. The pinball was built on a steep ramp in the exhibition hall and has a gigantic playfield, which measures 3×6 meters in total.

Phæno from the outside

Photo: CC BY-SA Richard Batz

Styled with UFO’s and other cosmic references, the pinball fits perfectly into the futuristic building designed by the star architect Zaha Hadid.

As a science center should stimulate creativity and inventiveness, I repurposed everyday items like hair dryers and office fans for the playfield elements, giving the visitors the idea that they could also build such a contraption at home.

The result is a fully playable machine, operated via a control desk where the score is displayed on a jumbo calculator. Needless to say – hunting the high score is galactic fun! Watch the video above to see the machine in action!

Large scale pinball machine "Galactic Dimension" - tested by some enthusiastic visitors

Making the installation

In 2015 I got a really nice invitation: Phæno curator Davy Champion asked me, if I’d like to come over for a visit to their space ship shaped museum in order to discuss plans for an upcoming pinball exhibition. At that point the people at Phæno had no idea how much I like science centers – and that I’m also a total pinball lover! It turned out that they were planning a big exhibition with around thirty super beautiful classic pinball machines from the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda / California.

In addition, they also wanted to show some pinball themed art installations – this was where I was to step in. You can imagine that I was pretty thrilled when they asked me to build a pinball installation on one of the ramps that characterize their distinct exhibition space. My immediate vision was to build a giant pinball machine, which would be, not only a cool installation, but also really great to play with.

One very big flipper that is actuated by a pneumatic cylinder

Using the existing ramp was a challenge, though. Not only is it quite large, but with more than 30° inclination it’s also extremely steep. My only chance to shoot a large ball up there was to use a very light ball. I went for a hollow silver plastic ball, one that is meant to be used in ball baths. (Because, you know, I do have some experience with using ball bath balls.)

As a first step, I started to develop the flippers. The classic solenoid powered construction seemed to be inappropriate in the enormous scale. Coils in the required size would have been very big, heavy and expensive. So I went for pneumatic cylinders as actuators, which are controlled by electromagnetic valves. This made perfect sense considering that the museum has the luxury of having compressed air outlets everywhere. Air cylinders are also cheap, powerful and reliable – and the power can be easily adjusted by regulating the air pressure.

Comparing two generations of flipper assemblies

Nevertheless, it took me several days and a few prototypes until I had a satisfactory flipper assembly. The first generation was very loud and not powerful at all. It was far too heavy and lacked damping in the end positions. So I made a 2nd generation flipper, which was much lighter and simpler. In fact it was build so light that it broke after five minutes of testing.

More iteration was needed, and finally with the 3rd generation I seemed to be on the right track: I could successfully kick balls over the long test ramp which I had set up in the workshop and the sound was well within acceptable decibel boundaries.

A sewer pipe and a hair dryer make a literally great auto-plunger

For the rest of the machine, I wanted to (mis-)use as many household items as possible. I thought it would be fun if the exhibition visitors could recognize the objects, and how I gave them a different purpose in the mega pinball machine. The plunger, for instance, was a combination of a sewer pipe and a hair dryer, blowing the ball up the playfield. This worked really well, right away.

Bumpers built out of office fans

I decided to build all the elements on the playfield as separate modules, as this would make set up and maintenance much easier. Each module has its own 220V power supply, a sensor for detecting the ball (which is either an infrared distance sensor or a simple light barrier) and an Arduino as a microcontroller. One or more actuators were also included, which caused the ball to change its trajectory. These were made from things like hair dryers and modified office fans – the latter made great bumpers!

All the modules have also sound effects. Some were hacked electronic toys, like a laser gun in the slingshots, or just a speaker connected to the Arduino.

All the pinball parts spread out on the workshop floor for an electronics test

Even though I had tested that all the modules function in my workshop, at some point I wasn’t 100% confident that everything would work as I had imagined, once assembled as a big machine at Phæno. When I drove to Wolfsburg for the set up with a big van stuffed with my pinball gear, I prayed for the pinball gods to be on my side!

Katharina Iskam / Phæno

As you can tell from this picture above, setting up turned out to be quite some fun. The carpenter of the museum prepared a wooden floor plate on the ramp for the playfield. I could easily screw the different modules onto that board. He also mounted a professional harness for me which made assembling the monster machine on the ramp an exciting activity. I felt like a total mega pinball mounting pro!

Then the moment of truth approached: As soon as I had the essentials mounted on the ramp, I switched the machine on in order to play it for the first time. And what can I say? – It worked like a dream!
Davy told me later that Andreas Harre, who’s been the German pinball champion for several years in a row, also played my machine when he was visiting Phæno – and he became totally excited about it! As you can imagine, I was very thrilled to hear that my machine could provoke such a galactic reaction of a true pinball wizard!

The finished pinball machine in all its glory