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These Enchanting Fireflies Are Actually A Robot Swarm

“Pixi” is like a swarm of mechanical fireflies.

A flock of creatures rests on tree trunks in a dark winter forest in the Netherlands. The creatures glow red, responding to each other–conversing through light. Their flickering appears random, but step back, and a pattern begins to emerge.

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The creatures aren’t bugs or birds–they’re robots that the Netherlands-based artist collective WERC installed and programmed to constantly interact with each other. The robotic swarm–called Pixi–was on display in the Buitencentrum Boomkroonpad forest area near the village of Drouwen in the Netherlands as a nighttime installation in the fall and winter of 2017. They were inactive during the day, preserving their batteries, but at night they came alive.

[Image: courtesy WERC]
Thousands of wooden hexagonal robots were outfitted with blinking red lights and secured to tree trunks. Once initiated by a visitor entering with a specialized lantern, the Pixies begin to pass signals to each other. Controlled by a microprocessor that contains a set of rules that dictate its behavior, each robot acts based on what messages it receives from its neighbors, which it interprets as speed, duration, intensity, and color of light. As it blinks, it sends out more messages to its neighbors, passing along instructions based on internal code. When viewed up close, the bots’ blinking patterns don’t make much sense–but when viewed from far away, they turn into large-scale patterns. It’s almost like how flocks of birds, swarms of fireflies, or schools of fish act–individually, but in unison.

“This creates a lively network of feedback that is reminiscent of a neural net,” write the artists in their statement.

But it’s not just the internal code that determines the patterns. Instead, the artists write, “nature becomes part of the design process.” Pixi take into account environmental factors like temperature and humidity, as well as the presence of visitors. “This creates a symbiosis between digital technology and nature.”

Exploring this relationship between technology and the natural world is the artistic goal of the installation–WERC even refers to Pixi as a “digital organism.” The piece relies on the technology used in swarm robotics, where small, simple bots work as a whole to accomplish tasks. Rather than creating a piece of digital art on a single screen, Pixi imagines each little robot as a single pixel within a dispersed screen, and then asks each individual pixel to interact and create something that feels something like digital magic.

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The installation is a stunning way to experience a forest at night–with little robots that act like mechanical fireflies, their glow lighting your way.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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