BitDrones are Awesome, Ridiculous at Same Time

At first we thought it was awesome, then we thought it was ridiculous, and now we’re pretty much settled on “ridiculawesome”.

Bitdrones is a prototype of a human-computer interaction that uses tiny quadcopters as pixels in a 3D immersive display. That’s the super-cool part. “PixelDrones” have an LED on top. “ShapeDrones” have a gauzy cage that get illuminated by color LEDs, making them into life-size color voxels. (Cool!) Finally, a “DisplayDrone” has a touchscreen mounted to it. A computer tracks each drone’s location in the room, and they work together to create a walk-in 3D “display”. So far, so awesome.

It gets even better. Because the program that commands the drones knows where each drone is, it can tell when you’ve moved a drone around in space. That’s extremely cool, and opens up the platform to new interactions. And the DisplayDrone is like a tiny flying cellphone, so you can chat hands-free with your friends who hover around your room. Check out the video embedded below the break.


On the other hand, for a human-computer interface, we have to say that the examples they picked just aren’t a good fit. For instance, have a look in the video where the drones are used to represent files in a directory (42 seconds in). Either there are only three files in the directory, or they ran out of drones. And rotating through the three is a bit slow because the physical drones have to fly to new locations to select a file. We’re thinking of that directory with 200 photos that we just downloaded from our camera.

The section of the video where they use the three ShapeDrones to stand in for a 3D physical model (52 seconds in) is awesome again. The user positions the drones in space, and they hover there and presumably this moves around some part of a 3D model in a computer somewhere. We love it. But again they run into the difference between virtual and real; three voxels, even if they are very elegant and in RGB color, isn’t enough for any serious modeling. Even a modest real-world project is going to take a fleet of these things, which would be fantastic but incredibly expensive.

Finally, epitomizing the simultaneous awesome and head-scratching of this project, they translate the pinch gesture (to enlarge or shrink an image) from the touchscreen to the real world (1:52 into the video). That’s super cool in principle, and we love the movement. But in the video, the demo guy nearly gets hit on the shoulder by the third pixel shrinking inwards toward the other two. We’re imagining a user with long hair and a model with many more copters. The horror!

In the end, using an interaction design term, the virtual and physical worlds have different affordances, and that’s a physical fact that the project either tries to blur or ignore. Quadcopters aren’t pixels: you can’t have a million of them, and even if you could they’re slow to reconfigure and harder to manipulate. That said, something beautiful has been designed here, and we’re absolutely sure that there’s an application out there that fits it.

So, for navigating files, we’ll stick with the mouse. But we totally want a room full of flying RGB cubes!

29 thoughts on “BitDrones are Awesome, Ridiculous at Same Time

  1. This promotes one to work fast – your work environment will run out of batteries in like 5 minutes, and then you can take a 40 minute coffee break while the batteries are recharging :-)

    1. Am I the only one now thinking of a Dilbert comic based on this?

      Perhaps with Dilbert (with a cynical raised eyebrow) asking Wally how he’s using his bitdrones “productively”.

      Suddenly both focus on Catbert as he runs past them while happily chasing the bitdrones.

      Wally’s reply: “Morale.”

    1. I’m guessing they didn’t – see the mocap points on the ‘users’ hand?

      This stuff is pretty cool but really trying to pass it off as a product is a stretch. I have 5-7 years of 3D modelling professionally under my belt and if it took me that long to resize and rotate I would shoot myself. It was hard enough trying to break away from the keyboard shortcuts and use a 3Dconnexion controller (which after lunch I discovered that I had subconsciously reverted to keyboard again).

      1. My guess is that there is a tiny protector behind the screen. The projection screen is touch sensitive. I don’t see any significant distortion which would indicate special optics also…?

  2. Well that’s great, now all the companys that are in the buisness of placing cubes in free space have videomeetings about how they want to place the cubes.

    Because the company who is in the buisness of building the cube houses in real life will still need the supportstructures in the last picture, and then they could have discussed the placing by placing wooden blocks instead…

    Sorry, I see absolutely no use at all for any of this, please explain again the awsomness of this?

    1. The use is an academic exercise. What they had in mind is not be possible with current technology but they wanted to explore the idea and so implemented with what they could get their hands on.

      1. My thoughts are similar. The idea is way ahead of the tech. Eventually some offshoot of this may come into fruition when the tech and the idea are mature. By then we may not even recognize the result.

  3. reconfigurable structures? Use the drones as smart bricks that can stack, charge each other up through the touching edges, and then reconfigure if you want the stack to change shape.

  4. Well the nano drone with the screen is the coolest part of that. I mean whatever swarm logic they used is definitely cool but completely impractical for the application they where applying it to. I mean as a file interface that makes all those Hollywood 3D filesystems/hacks look down right optimized by comparison :P

  5. The cheesy voice-overs in the video remind me of old Kung Fu movies where the actors’ lips don’t even come close to matching the words we hear. Start watching the guy’s lips at 2:35 and you’ll see what I mean.

    As for the rest of it? A clever way to waste batteries in your quadcopters, but it definitely has no use beyond that. Even the flying screen still seems somehow much less convenient than a handheld smartphone or tablet, as your hand doesn’t run out of power in 5 minutes.

    1. “as your hand doesn’t run out of power in 5 minutes.”

      From the comments on the gadget sites about how much some of the larger cell phones weigh, I think you might be wrong…. ;-)

  6. Has anyone considered the elephant in the room? Noise! Quads are loud. Bigger quads are even louder. This thing is probably maxing out the thrust. That means it’s even louder. Plenty of folks have mentioned the battery concerns, and obviously maxing the thrust out will rapidly deplete the power source.

    So from a practicality point of view, there isn’t one. It’s technology dressed in modern art.

    1. Yeah it’s more about securing a patent for 80 years later and some art nonsense.
      (Oh and some artsy showing off your beard thinking a beard makes you special.)

      I also really don’t see a use aside from some pop event or the oscars, even without the noise and if they didn’t require batteries.

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