Disney creating a series of tiny robots sounds like a cunning merchandising ploy from the House of Mouse, but it's actually an inventive new way of telling stories. At least, that's the motivation of its research arm, which unveiled Pixelbots last month to coincide with the publication of their research on swarm robotics in art.
Each Pixelbot manoeuvres around a surface on two magnetic wheels, altering its position and colour to act as one pixel in a larger image. Disney Research has developed algorithms based on swarm robotics, which allows the emergence of group behaviour through the actions of individual agents. Each Pixelbot is programmed to decide its position and colour relative to its closest neighbours, meaning that eventually every robot is in the optimal formation to display an image closely resembling the input.
We first heard rumblings that Disney was working on something like this back in 2011, when their researchers presented a paper on artistic robot swarms at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation. Back then, they were able to demonstrate ten Pixelbots forming basic shapes with reasonable accuracy, but the use of simulations for larger swarms suggested that the system couldn't yet scale. However, the results of recent tests seems to indicate that Pixelbots will soon be ready for prime-time.
Exactly what Disney will do with a swarm of tiny robots at its command remains to be seen. But since these minute mechanoids are probably best appreciated in the flesh, they'll likely find a permanent home on show at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. As the technology develops, they might be put to work playing out rudimentary live animations for guests, like the 'Story of the Universe' sequence that Disney Research also demonstrated.
Alternatively, since Disney has already proven itself capable of selling toys that combine with technology, maybe Pixelbots will be marketable after all. It's not hard to imagine sets of Pixelbots being available to buy, controlled through basic drawings and commands via a companion tablet app. The kids using them wouldn't have to micromanage their micro-army since most of the coordination would be done by the swarm itself.
Though, with new Star Wars films currently in development under the Disney umbrella, here's hoping we'll see a Pixelbot cameo in Episode VII as the latest model of mouse droid.
Image courtesy of Disney Parks blog