Light Matters: Smart Flying Pixels Create a Floating Glow

Imagine luminaires that could fly and visualise new buildings or individually guide you through space. What would happen if you could even interact with these flying pixels? These concepts could be realised in the near future as the first prototypes and experiments are being introduced. Software-driven LED pixels combined with drone swarm technology provide extraordinary possibilities for inducing new forms of spatial experience. These luminous pixel clouds emerge as digital patterns, but at the same time they emanate a romantic quality with their unique star formations twinkling in the night sky. The first projects have shared a playful note, but laboratories such as MIT's SENSEable City Lab, ARES Lab and Ars Electronica Futurelab have shown an intriguing future in urban design for guidance systems or envisioning real estate developments, as advances in battery technology and wireless control have opened new perspectives for a life with smart flying pixels.

In 2010, MIT´s SENSEable City Lab and Aerospace Robotics and Embedded Systems Laboratory (ARES Lab) developed their vision for flying pixels based on micro helicopters. The vivid "Flyfire" animation demonstrated how self-organizing helicopters could contain small LEDs, which act as smart pixels. This MIT research was mainly driven by the idea to generate a unique free-form display in a three-dimensional space, where each pixel emits colored light and could reconfigure the display into different forms. The Flyfire project presented an innovative concept, and aeronautic specialists like Emilio Frazzoli remarked in 2010: "Today we are able to simultaneously control a handful of micro helicopters, but with Flyfire we are aiming to scale up and reach very large numbers."

Two years later, the Ars Electronica Futurelab translated this vision of a smart light cloud into the first real world prototype. Forty-nine quadcopters flew with a programmable LED system and created dynamic 3D figures in the night sky for the 2012 Ars Electronica Festival in Linz. To the untrained eye, the light pixel formations might have even appeared like a fleet of tiny UFOs descending on the viewer.

Since the successful start in 2012, the so called "Spaxels" - a mixture of the words ‘space’ and ‘pixels’ - have been presented at several festivals in Europe, the Middle East and Australia. The light choreography has included various forms, colors and dimming sequences for spectacular performances, which have been also linked to music. Due to the relatively large diffuser element below the LED module, the spaxels achieve a good visibility.

Horst Hörtner, director of Ars Electronica Futurelab, went a step further when he demonstrated the “Smart Atoms” project at the 2014 Ars Electronica Festival. He created virtual lines with a new generation of spaxels and directly reconfigured their location to generate new forms in the space. Thereby Hörtner played with real quadcopters and modified the virtual net between them. This installation has opened an innovative perspective for the human interaction with intelligent pixels. With these developments, the vision of smart holograms seems to be within close reach.

In contrast to the previous drone applications, the recent SPARKED project transformed the technical look of quadcopters into diverse dancing lampshades for a magical story. With SPARKED, the collaborative team of Cirque du Soleil, ETH Zurich, and Verity Studios explored the aesthetic dimension of the quadcopters itself. For the first time flying light pixels dissolved into design objects. The individual materials, forms and textures granted the drones a personality beyond different light colours.

These dynamic three-dimensional light images will change the way we analyze and simulate the built environment for interior and exterior spaces. Future applications could range from temporary wayfinding solutions in urban spaces – either for events or emergency situations - to visualizing upcoming volumes for renovations in interior spaces or for discussing the dimensions of upcoming real estate projects. The flying light pixels would easily enable a dynamic simulation of different building sizes and forms to find the right solution. For tourism, the spaxels could take over the role of a guide and visualize historical layers of the city.

Light matters, a monthly column on light and space, is written by Thomas Schielke. Based in Germany, he is fascinated by architectural lighting, has published numerous articles and co-authored the book, “Light Perspectives.” For more information check or follow him @arcspaces

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Cite: Thomas Schielke. "Light Matters: Smart Flying Pixels Create a Floating Glow" 10 Oct 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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