Disclaimer: today is April 1. This post is not an April Fool's joke, because we're curmudgeonly old-school journalists who don't go in for those kinds of shenanigans, and robotics news is interesting enough all by itself. Thank you for your attention.
Three years ago at ICRA in Shanghai, Disney Research presented a prototype for an artistic robot swarm. The swarm was made up of lots of little wheeled robots with LEDs, each of which acted as an individual mobile pixel in a dynamic image made entirely of robots. Disney and ETH Zurich have been refining this idea, developing both software and hardware and adding more robots to the mix. At the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction earlier this month, the latest version of this Display Swarm, now called Pixelbots, reenacted the story of the Universe.
"Pixelbots are two-wheeled robots. They can make robotic images on tabletops or on whiteboards (using magnetic wheels). It's possible to sketch on an iPad and see the Pixelbots move into position to create the drawing, or to direct them by pointing motions. Altogether, it's a whole new way of looking at cartoon images and animations. These are 'Pixels with Personality'!"
The robots themselves are neat, but the cleverest bit is the software that controls it all, which takes care of all of the robot positioning. You can have a huge swarm of tiny little robots, and make rapid transitions between complex shapes, but the robots won't get confused or run into each other. You can even deliberately try to mess the bots up by picking them up and moving them, and they'll still do their very best to reposition themselves to keep the shape that you want. And since the bots are perfectly happy managing themselves, any number of different kinds of inputs work equally well:
Using robots as pixels opens up a lot of interesting possibilities. Disney is focusing on 2D displays, but there's a huge amount of potential with 3D displays, as well. A few years ago, MIT produced this video (note that it is a concept) for Flyfire, an aerial display made up of thousands of flying robotic pixels:
We may not be at Flyfire quite yet, but Kmel robotics is working towards it:
It may not be realistic to expect that we'll have swarming robot displays in our living rooms or anything, but it's not entirely unreasonable to think that within the next decade, robots will be cheap enough (and control systems sophisticated enough) that high definition crawling (or flying) displays might form interactive images on walls or in skies.
And that might be something that's worth doing to Disneyland to see.