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Zoological – Autonomous flying spheres at the Roundhouse

Created by Random International, Zoological is a flock of autonomous, flying spheres that move collectively. Algorithmically driven, the spheres react to their surroundings and, sometimes, to people within their environment.

The work is an amplified and physical manifestation of our lived experience in a world increasingly run by algorithms. As a species, we are having to adapt rapidly to a continually developing cohabitation with autonomous machines, whose presence is often intangible or discrete. Zoological was informed by a desire to explore some of the implications of this through physicality, instinct, and emotion.

For the install, the team are using an array of LIDARs to track people in the space. The depth data is fed back to their system over Ethernet and they compose all the feeds together in their custom software (C#/.net on full fat Windows). Their software isn’t connected to the 150cm wide orbs, instead, its looking at the people, what they are doing and where they are. Based on this they have a state machine with weightings in it to select groupings and formations of the orbs as well as a target flight point. Based on what ‘mood’ the group is in they might follow a person about or move away from a large group; sometimes they float about up high and sometimes they get brave and come towards the floor.

Once all of this processing is done they feed the group target and additional information over to another system which is exclusively watching the orbs and what they are doing. This system forms a closed loop of control with the orbs; high speed cameras dotted around the Roundhouse gantry rings are providing position data back to this system and it is capable of two-way communications with each orb over a dual redundant RF link. This system is made up of a handful of Linux boxes, each looking after a separate chunk of the loop (one for overall management, one for vision processing, one for flight data, one for radio stuff etc). In this way, all the safety critical stuff is handled on a separate loop and if their behaviour goes wrong the orbs don’t drop out of the sky. This tracking and flight system is provided by a specialist partner as are the orbs themselves – the helium filled foil bubbles are super delicate and require a huge amount of skill to fabricate and maintain.

The work forms part of +/- Human, an immersive experience curated by multi award-winning choreographer and director Wayne McGregor for Bloomberg Summer at the Roundhouse. +/- Human brings Wayne McGregor together with artists from iconic electronic music label Warp Records and Random International to explore the relationship between mechanical autonomy and human beings.

For more information on the project, see Dev Joshi’s talk from It’s Nice That / Nicer Tuesdays event last year embedded below.

Project Page | Random International

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