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Disney Research Pixelbots Tell the Story of the Universe

A swarm of robots combines to form a storytelling display

2 min read
Disney Research Pixelbots Tell the Story of the Universe

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.

[ ACM ] via [ Disney Research ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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