BitDrones Flying Microbots Model Programmable Matter

BitDrones is an interactive swarm of flying 3D pixels developed at Queen’s University’s Human Media Lab. Users can explore virtual 3D information by using the flying pixels as floating, programmable matter.


(BitDrones Flying Microbots Model Programmable Matter)

Queen’s professor Roel Vertegaal and his students are unveiling the BitDrones system on Monday, Nov. 9 at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology in Charlotte, North Carolina. BitDrones is the first step towards creating interactive self-levitating programmable matter – materials capable of changing their 3D shape in a programmable fashion – using swarms of nano quadcopters. The work highlights many possible applications for the new technology, including real-reality 3D modeling, gaming, molecular modeling, medical imaging, robotics and online information visualization.

“BitDrones brings flying programmable matter, such as featured in the futuristic Disney movie Big Hero 6, closer to reality,” says Dr. Vertegaal. “It is a first step towards allowing people to interact with virtual 3D objects as real physical objects.”

Dr. Vertegaal and his team at the Human Media Lab created three types of BitDrones, each representing self-levitating displays of distinct resolutions. “PixelDrones” are equipped with one LED and a small dot matrix display. “ShapeDrones” are augmented with a light-weight mesh and a 3D printed geometric frame, and serve as building blocks for complex 3D models. “DisplayDrones” are fitted with a curved flexible high resolution touchscreen, a forward-facing video camera and Android smartphone board. All three BitDrone types are equipped with reflective markers, allowing them to be individually tracked and positioned in real time via motion capture technology. The system also tracks the user’s hand motion and touch, allowing users to manipulate the voxels in space.

“We call this a Real Reality interface rather than a Virtual Reality interface. This is what distinguishes it from technologies such as Microsoft HoloLens and the Oculus Rift: you can actually touch these pixels, and see them without a headset,” says Dr. Vertegaal.

Dr. Vertegaal and his team demonstrate a number of applications for this technology. In one scenario, users physically explore a file folder by touching the folder’s associated PixelDrone. When the folder opens, its contents are shown by other PixelDrones flying in a horizontal wheel below it. Files in this wheel are browsed by physically swiping drones to the left or right.

Fans of Stanislaw Lem recall his wonderful novel The Invincible, in which he makes a very early mention of the idea of black cloud of nanomachines:

They exist in loose swarms, which permits them to be constantly exposed to the sunlight, or even to chase after thunderclouds, for they probably obtain energy from these atmospheric discharges...

Somewhat earlier, Golden Age legend Jack Williamson wrote a great story titled The Infinite Enemy, published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1938, in which an alternate universe is found to contain a being comprised of metallic cubes.

Fans of early scientifiction may recall the living metal cubes from The Metal Monster, a 1920 story by Abraham Merritt.

Faster the cubes moved; faster the circle revolved; the pyramids raised themselves, stood bolt upright on their square bases; the six rolling spheres touched them, joined the spinning, and with sleight-of-hand suddenness the ring drew together; its units coalesced, cubes and pyramids and globes threading with a curious suggestion of ferment.

With the same startling abruptness there stood erect, where but a moment before they had seethed, a little figure, grotesque; a weirdly humorous, a vaguely terrifying foot-high shape, squared and angled and pointed and ANIMATE—as though a child should build from nursery blocks a fantastic shape which abruptly is filled with throbbing life.

Via Human Media Lab press release.

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