Ball Machines – A Positive Robot Takeover 

Originally written by Joe Dinoffer for Racquet Sports Industry Magazine – June 2006

Thousands of players are proponents of ball machines and love practicing with them. Others don’t bother. First, let’s cover the reasons for the large fan club. Ball machines offer more balls per hour by far. Here are the statistics. 

An average player hits about 150 balls per hour in regular play. But, on a ball machine, that same player will hit more than three times that amount, a whopping 650 balls per hour. This is part of the reason that thousands of ball machines are purchased each year. 

Proponents of ball machine users are convinced they make great practice partners. They are always ready to practice when you are, don’t take bathroom breaks, answer cell phones during play, and play precisely to the level you dictate. 

On the other hand, if they’re so good, why are there still so many players who don’t seem to like ball machines at all? 

Their conviction is that ball machines have a single but glaring limitation. They argue that ball machines are not realistic practice partners since balls are fed in predictable patterns. While this has been true for decades, times are changing. We are entering a new and exciting era of ball machine technology.

In the science fiction movie “I Robot,” starring actor Will Smith, a futuristic world full of service-oriented robots reaches a crisis when the robots start thinking for themselves and conclude that humans are not fit to rule the planet. 

In the movie, the robots plot and battle with the humans for control. Of course, there is no soon-to-be-released movie called “I Ball Machine,” but a new generation of machines now offer realistic random play options at the touch of a button. 

While this virtual reality concept has been around for years in larger (and more expensive) club model ball machines, today’s technological advances have made them even better. 

Many full-sized club model machines now have new features, such as preprogrammed drill sequences. Some even allow users to design their own drills on a PC, download them to a portable control panel, and the practice patterns of play each user creates suit their own personal needs.

For individual users and smaller facilities, the march of time and progress now offers more good news. Ball machine technology has even gotten better. Multiple portable machine manufacturers have introduced affordable portables in the past year that feature close-to-real-play drilling and “one-touch” technology. 

Of course, they don’t have all the bells and whistles of their bigger and more expensive cousins, but they perform pretty well for a machine in the $1500 to $2000 price range. Add this virtual reality feature to the other benefits of portables, making them seem more attractive.

One machine I play-tested features a vertical oscillation option that randomly feeds balls of various depths, allowing players to practice groundstroke, approach, and volley sequences easily. 

Another company now makes a series of machines that offer one-touch drill set-up, since the units are actually preprogrammed at beginner, intermediate, and advanced playing levels. With one touch of a button, the machine varies the feed of each ball with a different speed, spin, arc, and direction for each level of play. 

So, whether it’s the most sophisticated programmable machine costing well over $5,000 or a handy and less expensive portable that also boasts some cool features all its own, the future is here and available today. And, no, they are not sophisticated enough to develop a mind of their own like in the “I Robot” movie. They just do what you ask them to do. Personally, I hope it stays just like that.

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