Arduino, Environment
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Pixi – Nature aware, self-sufficient, digital organism ‘breathes’ in the forest

Created by the artist collective WERC, Pixi is a digital organism inspired by the complex patterns that exist in nature and questions whether a technical natural phenomenon can imitate the complex aesthetics of nature or interact with it.  The Pixi was designed to be self-sufficient; able to survive in a natural environment and similarly to other organisms, Pixi can make their own choices and are also influenced by environmental factors from nature. Equipped with a pulsating light, the visitors can observe only a handful of Pixies and there are no discernible behavioural patterns. However, when they step back and look at them from a distance, the connections in the flock become clear and visible – a group intelligence arises.

The Pixi was developed as a single individual and then reproduced. The more organisms are added to the flock, the more complex the patterns become, and the more intelligently the organism communicates and collaborates. The Pixi’s brain is a microprocessor containing behavioural rules, the bases of which are identical. The behaviour dictates how often, how fast, and to how many other Pixies a message should be sent. When a Pixi receives a message, it interprets this and then sends it on. When a Pixi hasn’t received a message for some time, it will initiate contact on its own. By having the behavioural rules executed locally and in multitudes, complex images arise. The team makes the organism do the work by very quickly and very precisely repeating simple rules until they form complex images. The team then assesses these images and adjusts them. Inputting variables into these rules creates an infinite number of combinations. After this point, the team no longer makes any decisions; they simply provide the framework within which the Pixies are free to move.

Nature also plays host to the installation communicating the ever-changing environmental factors, such as temperature and humidity to Pixies. As a result, the Pixi adopts location-specific behaviour and they communicate wirelessly with each other, over radio waves. This communication is visualised by the duration, intensity, speed, and colour of the light. This gives rise to flock-inspired patterns and movements.

The Pixies have a battery that provides sufficient energy for them to work during the autumn and winter months. They sleep during the day, waking up at night whenever a visitor takes a Pixi lantern into the forest. When a Pixi’s energy levels drop, it will become less active. The imitation of nature is also visible in the shape of the casing. The variable of this shape was generated by Pixi itself, and then created using a computerised cutter.

To install Pixies in the forest, biologists, nature lovers, and any proponents and opponents were consulted. An independent agency has performed an ecological check. As the installation was constructed, tested, and installed, Staatsbosbeheer (organisation in charge of the forrest) and WERC took into account how Pixi influences the environment. Variables such as light intensity, colour, and placement of the installation have been adjusted to minimise this influence.

The Pixies hardware includes a custom pcb micro controller, atmel mega328p ws2812b led, ds323SN clock, radio nrf28l01, temperature sensor and a battery. Software was written in Arduino and atmelstudio using the following Arduino libraries: DS3231 and FastLED

In the making process, the team built a transmission protocol that was able to do the equivalent of broad and unicast, and where individual Pixies were able to change a message in between sends. Every Pixi has its own behaviour/variables based on floating port numbers, temperature, and already received messages. They also use a watchdog timer to sleep most of the day, and can be woken up by radio. This means they will last months on a 4000mah battery.  Housing for the pcb is a wooden shell cnc milled with for each Pixi different variables. And so a slightly different characteristic. Pcb is then placed in the wood and encased in a black resin. wether proofing it.

Project PageWERC

The artist collective WERC consists of different teams working on various disciplines. Characteristic for the collective is their experiments with new media and techniques. The  collective consists of Joachim Rümke, Olav Huizer, Joachim de Vries, and Jelle Valk. It is located in Groningen. 

Photos by Knelis.