Nov 9, 2015 | By Alec

The movie Minority Report was released thirteen years ago, but its futuristic technology – especially Tom Cruise’s interactive virtual reality screen – continues to fascinate researchers. The only thing better than an interactive VR screen, some argue, would be a physical interactive display, and that is essentially what BitDrone is about. Developed by Queen’s University’s Human Media Lab professor Roel Vertegaal and his students, BitDrone is a small swarm of three types of levitating drones that can form holograms and perform a number of tasks based on your orders.

As the team explains in a research paper entitled ‘BitDrones: Towards Self3Levitating Programmable Matter Via Interactive 3D Quadcopter Displays’, the researchers reveal that such a concept goes all the way back to the dawn of the computers when rooms filled with computer-controlled matter would be the ultimate design tool. ‘According to Toffoli and Margolus, such programmable matter would consist of small, parallel, cellular automata nodes capable of geometrically shaping themselves in 3D space to create any kind of material structure,’ they write, and that is essentially what they’ve realized.

This intriguing concept is set to debut at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology in Charlotte, North Carolina today, but the Canadian team has already released a fascinating video clip (below) in anticipation, and it is setting the web alight. Could BitDrone be the interactive media breakthrough people are waiting for?

Well it could be, because the concept of ‘Interactive self-levitating programmable matter’ is truly revolutionary and is a completely new way of interacting with data, with virtual reality. A swarm of nano 3D printed quadcopters, they are essentially self-levitating build blocks for just about anything. Applications include 3D modeling, gaming, molecular modeling, medical imaging, robots and information visualization. While now only consisting of a handful of bulky drones, once the concept is extended to include a gigantic swarm of smaller drones, a lot can be done. ‘BitDrones brings flying programmable matter, such as featured in the futuristic Disney movie Big Hero 6, closer to reality,’ says Dr. Vertegaal on his university’s website. ‘It is a first step towards allowing people to interact with virtual 3D objects as real physical objects.’

To enable these self-levitating displaces, the swarm currently consists of three types of BitDrones: PixelDrones, featuring a single LED light and a small dot matrix display, Shapedrones, carring a light 3D printed mesh around to serve as building blocks, and DisplayDrones. These final drones feature a high-res touchscreen, camera and an Android smartphone board. What’s more, all drones feature reflective markers to enable individual tracking and positioning in real time, via motion capture technology. The system even tracks user’s motions and even touch, enabling you to manipulate these ‘voxels’ in space in real time. This intriguing movements can be seen below.

As Vertegaal explains, this is essentially physical reality interface that can be compared to that seen in Minority Report, but then taking place in real 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,’ he says. The Drones themselves are also safe for humans, and very easy to manipulate. ‘Simple atomic information can be displayed by a single drone," they write in their paper, while more complex 3D data displays can be constructed using several drones, providing the rudiments for a voxel-based 3D modeling system capable of representing sparse 3D graphics in real reality.’

So how does that manipulation practically work? As Vertegaal and his team demonstrates, PixelDrones can be – for instance – associated with a file folder, and when touched its contents are shown by other PixelDrones flying in a wheel below it. Swiping the drones to the side is used to browse through the files. But the most direct use is realized through the mesh cubes, that enable you to build a model in real time. While the current setup is perhaps a bit bulky, complex CAD models could be realized with your hands if the drones were smaller and more varied. The DisplayDrone, finally, even enables you to Skype hands-free while walking. The possibilities of such a swarm of drones are endless.

The current applications are obviously a bit limited, unfortunately. Featuring just a dozen or so comparatively large 2.5” - 5” sized drones, the concept would only truly work with hundreds or thousands of much smaller drones, but much can still be done. Can you imagine building a 3D printable file by plucking a bunch of drones out of the sky? And with the DisplayDrone’s touchscreen, you can even alter scale or color, while they even respond to your hand motions in a way reminiscent of Cruise’s gloves. While such tangible and marketable results are doubtlessly years away, as you can see below, this current project is definitely a proof-of-concept.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Julio wrote at 11/11/2015 9:45:55 PM:

Interesting, but you can only play 5 minutes with them before a 3 hour charge is needed.

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