ETH Zurich and Disney partnered up to create the Pixelbots, a bunch of colorful robots that have a mind of their own. These two-wheeled robots can easily glide across a surface and create a beautiful animation, all at the same time.
Disney Research Zurich and the Autonomous Systems Lab collaborated with ETH Zurich to develop some two-inch discs with a flat wheelbase. The Pixelbots are equipped with magnetic wheels, which means that they can move on any flat surface, regardless of the angle. In other words, these could make some excellent lighting fixtures if you got a few hundreds of them and attached them to a metallic ceiling. Imagine that for a second! Animated light that moves as it pleases! Now that would definitely make your home unique. However, Disney imagined these swarms of tiny bots as some sort of display that could have a future in theme parks.
According to project lead Dr. Paul Beardsley and doctoral candidate Javier Alonso-Mora, the Pixelbots represent an art form that brings together robotics and graphics. Beardsley explained why the miniature robots are attractive, despite their low resolution: “HD screens and projections are impressive, but they are so familiar that they have lost the ability to generate excitement and attraction. Our experience has been that there is a fascination factor, and people will ask why certain robots go in a certain direction as though the robots are alive.”
What guides these robots and prevents them from bumping into one another are called optimal reciprocal collision avoidance algorithms. This could leave people with the impression that the Pixelbots have a mind of their own. If a pixelated robot is removed from a formation, the remaining Pixelbots will adapt and recreate the formation at a lower DPI, while maintaining the symmetry and an equal distance between them. Should the removed Pixelbot be added to the formation again, it will occupy a free spot and will be assigned a color that is in concordance with the rest of the picture.
Regarding the future applications of the Pixelbots, Beardsley claimed that “People had earlier demonstrated swarm robots making abstract shapes and motions, but no one had previously used robots to make representational images. What motivated our work is that we wanted to make a display that really grabs the attention.”
The above videos should give you an idea about how these Pixelbots look and work in real life.