Disney's Pixelbots Turn a Flat Surface Into a Moving Dot-Matrix Display

When you think of Disney animation, you probably envision cartoons drawn either by hand or computer. You probably don't think of little light-up robots that zip around a tabletop to make dot-matrix designs. But that's exactly what Disney Research came up with in Display Swarm, a research project that makes an animated display out of mini robotic pixels.

The little two-wheeled robots stick magnetically to a metal surface, while their red, green, and blue LEDs can illuminate across a huge palette of colors. A suspended camera tells the computer controlling the pixels where each dot is located, and the little scooters coordinate to form each image loaded into the computer.

The team set out to investigate how to make visually-appealing imagery with a very limited number of pixels, as well as studying how to make robots zoom around independently without colliding. The result is admittedly very low-resolution. But it's just plain fun watching these little guys zip around. And that's the point: as project lead Dr. Paul Beardsley told Wired, "what motivated our work is that we wanted to make a display that really grabs the attention."

Indeed, if a kid (or an adult for that matter) ambles up and plucks one of the pixelbots out of the array, the display keeps going, the remaining dots filling in for their missing comrade. The result is even lower resolution—but infinitely more playful feeling than even the most blazing hi-def TV. [Disney Research via Wired]