The iBall: Taking Tennis Technology to a Bright New Level
Julian Salama, an undergraduate in Math and Physics, and Nicolas Begasse de Dhaem, an undergraduate in Civil Engineering, both studying at the famed Polytechnic University of New York, teamed up to design a prototype for a new tennis ball that might change how the traditional game of tennis is played.
The aim of their invention, which they entered into the 2009-2010 Time Warner Cable Inno/Vention Competition, was to produce a tennis ball that could be used in low light conditions, thereby encouraging people to play until later in the evening. The iBall would also allow private clubs to reduce their outdoor lighting – saving power and making play more pleasant. (The cost of electricity and maintenance for a year for a single tennis court ranges from $3,500 to $11,500.)
Phosphorescent balls do exist, but they are not covered with cloth like a regular tennis ball. Neither do they emit as much light as the iBall. Julian and Nicolas decided to incorporate two strips of LED lights on the surface of the rubber of the ball. The battery-powered LED lights are so thin that just the surface shows and has no effect on the ball’s bounce.
On the Baseline’s Aaress Lawless caught up with the two students earlier this year to talk about the inspiration behind the project—and some of their favorite tennis players.
OTB: Can you both share how you were inspired to design the iBall?
Nicolas: We were in the same high school (Lycee Francais de New York), in the same classes for two years, so we played together there. When we arrived here, we were playing on the tennis courts on campus, and near dusk we could still see the court outline but we could no longer see the ball. So it occurred to us that maybe we could make a ball that lights up.
Julian: It was September or October, and there were not many lights for the courts. By 5:00, we couldn’t play anymore, and we thought it would be great: We could play until 11:00.
OTB: What prompted you both to attend NYU-Poly? Can you tell me a little about your backgrounds?
Julian: I was born in Paris and am a French citizen here on a student visa. I traveled to America with my family about five years ago. First I went to Miami and I lived there for a year and then we moved to New York. The main reason I came to NYU-Poly was because it was a small school where we could get opportunities like this. I thought that if we went to someplace like Columbia it would be more straightforward. Here we can meet amazing people – like those who were part of this competition and the professors, and it is something we never would have encountered in another place.
Nicolas: NYU-Poly is a very small school inside a very famous, large school. It is also a very diverse. I was born in Belgium, lived there ten years, then moved to France, and arrived in New York two and a half years ago. I have a green card and will become a citizen. We moved with my father’s job, it was a really good experience to learn languages and meet people with different backgrounds. It is one of the reasons I came to this school. I also wanted to see the US Open.
OTB: Did you both grow up playing tennis?
Nicolas: I have been playing tennis since I was pretty young with my family, since I was maybe six years old. I went to the French Open every year.
Julian: I started playing when I was very young – about five or six years old. I have been to the U.S. Open a lot, but I have not been to the French Open. I want very much to go. If the French Open decides to use our ball, for sure I will check it out then. When I was young, we went to the south of France, at Cannes, and there were tennis courts and a teacher – he was amazing. I went for seven summers in a row, all of July, and from 2:00-5:00 every day, we would play tennis with this guy.
OTB: If you follow professional tennis, who are some of your favorite male and female players?
Nicolas: Roger Federer and Justine Henin because she is from Belgium, and she has been the #1 player for a long time.
Julian: Gael Monfils and Anna Kournikova. Gael is immature but he has great spirit. He is going to be the next champion. For sure, I can tell.
OTB: The technology powering the iBall is something that we’ve not seen before in tennis. How do you envision private clubs and recreational tennis players using the iBall?
Julian: We designed it for night play, but it could also be useful for daytime play. The light will not be distracting, but it could make a big difference by drawing your eye to the ball.
Nicolas: Also, it can be used to lower the lights in private clubs’ courts. It is innovative and useful. The lighting is sometimes too bright or not bright enough, so this will help.
Julian: Even in very good clubs, lighting systems are very old and not very good. The only place where you can find good indoor lighting is at a few hotels. For the majority of people — recreational players — it will help children to learn, it will be good for workers – anyone who doesn’t have the time to play during the day.
Nicolas: If I had the choice, I would play with a lighted ball. It will give tennis a more modern image.
OTB: Julian, as a physics major, can you explain if there are any noticeable differences in the iBall’s weight and bounce compared to a traditional tennis ball?
Julian: We tested a lot. Our goal was to have people look at the ball and say: “Wow, it is glowing,” and yet they wouldn’t know why or how because otherwise it looks and feels just like a regular ball.
For sure, it will be playable. There are three types of balls: fast, medium and slow, which are for children to learn to play. The iBall will match the weight, rebound and play qualities of balls in the fast and medium ranges – it will feel no different to the player. The iBall’s additional weight will be within the plus-or-minus factor commonly found in manufacturing other balls.
OTB: Nicolas, from an engineering perspective, how difficult was it to incorporate this technology into an object as precise and demanding as a tennis ball?
Nicolas: It took some time because we kept experimenting to make the ball lighter and to conserve the properties of a standard ball. We had a lot of challenges. It was very difficult to account for pressure, bounce, weight, spin – all those factors had to be respected.
We worked on a prototype, which wasn’t easy because we didn’t have many tools and materials. We couldn’t just hire a manufacturer. We didn’t just make a ball, we had to buy a regular ball, cut it open, take off the cloth, and put it back together as an iBall.
OTB: On a fun note, is it possible to use different color LED’s? I suspect that pink lights might be very popular with ladies!
Nicolas: We thought about this. We can make it any color. We thought that for novice players, we could make a ball with two different colors of LEDs – a different color on each side. They could see how it spins, which affects the bounce.
Julian: We have thought about designing a tennis court, too. It’s just in our heads now.
Nicolas: We could light up the lines like a discotheque, and these lines could also help to show when the ball is out of bounds.
Julian: The scoring would be automatic. We wouldn’t pick up balls anymore. We want to put music to the game, and make it more fun.