Disney has developed a display made out of a swarm of disc-shaped robots. Each robot acts as an individual pixel and has controllable colour, meaning that it can form part of an image when viewed from above.
Display Swarm is a collaborative project from Disney Research Zurich and ETH Zurich. The first prototype system — revealed in 2011 — had just 14 two-wheeled Pixelbots, but the swam is now up to 75 individual machines. They have magnetic wheels meaning they can be deployed onto a vertical surface to provide better visibility.
The Swarm was recently demonstrated at the International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction, reenacting the “story of the Universe”, 13.8 billion years of which have been condensed into five key moments, including the Big Bang, the formation of planets, the evolution of fish through to dinosaurs and eventually humans. It’s very much an abridged story.
Each robot has an RGB light that can be configured into any colour. The main challenge relates to making sure that the robots can accurately locate themselves and avoid colliding with each other while also looking visually appealing. In order to do this, the researchers developed robot positioning software that tracks the bots using a camera and allows them to organise themselves into elaborate shapes very quickly without bumping into each other.
The team has even developed an iPad app that lets you sketch a shape and the robots will move into that shape in order to recreate the drawing. If you remove a couple of bots from the assembly, they will try their hardest to reorganise in order to keep your intended shape.
The system also allows for gestural control of the robots, for example, using the human body movements to control a stick figure image made out of the swarm. Similarly, hand gestures can be used to point to where the robots should go or how they should move.