The night sky swelled with one hundred drones in Tornesch, Germany last November during a performance dubbed "Drone 100" by Futurelab, the R&D branch of Ars Electronica, a new media arts institute in Austria. In sync with a live orchestra, LED-lit swarms of drones blinked and swirled through geometric transformations, an aerial dance so extraordinary it broke the Guinness World Record for most UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) airborne simultaneously.

It's the latest addition to Futurelab's impressive portfolio of outdoor drone performances, which debuted in 2012 during Linzer Klangwolke, an annual multimedia music event in Linz, Austria. Futurelab calls these drones "spaxels" or "space pixels." Each spaxel comes with a programmable LED system, which controls its visual qualities like color. Essentially three-dimensional pixels, spaxels can be choreographed as a swarm to create images, shapes, and dynamic sequences in the sky, a "new aesthetic vocabulary" free from the constraints of screen-based media, according to Futurelab.

"For us, it is not just about being impressive. We want to achieve a deep emotional impact with our work," says Chris Bruckmayr, the business manager and senior producer of FutureLab's Spaxels team. "It's not just a display up there - it [has] psychological impact on the audience. It's an artistic approach."

The idea of using technology to create art is hardly new. The discipline known as new media art, for example, is exactly that, where art is created using new media technologies like computer graphics, computer animations, and 3D printing. However, Futurelab's use of drones as an artistic medium - much like paint or clay - is decidedly unique. It marks a radical departure from typical drone applications, such as package delivery and surveillance, as well as performances like Cirque du Soleil's Sparked, a short film featuring drones that dance around as flying lampshades.

The beauty of spaxels lies in their abstraction. They can be used to represent anything: a raindrop, a firefly, a faraway star. A swarm of spaxels is even more versatile, capable of becoming an almost infinite variety of objects, moving or still. This is key, because it means that spaxels can hide what they really are - drones.

"Drones are like insects, like wasps," says Bruckmayr. "I work with them, but I could never say that they are beautiful."

 

The term "drone" is an unfortunate moniker. Though it's now used synonymously with UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), most opt for the former. In many ways, it's an apt name that describes the less appealing characteristics of drones, like the obnoxious buzzing sound they make while flying. However, the name is also isolating. Combined with the drone's mechanical appearance, the term can pigeonhole drones as something humans can't relate to.

"It's a form factor issue. When you see someone flying around with a drone, it's not a good feeling," says Bruckmayr. "As long as [drones] are not well designed or have a more human touch, [they're] going to have a huge problem."

Similar to how cars can appear to have a face, drones can be designed to resemble something that humans recognize, says Bruckmayr. Humans may feel more positively towards anthropomorphic robots, like R2D2 from Star Wars or WALL-E, both of which have gained popular appeal. Some kind of familiarity in appearance or behavior can help humans connect with an otherwise totally robotic entity.

"That's why people give their cars names," says Bruckmayr. "As long as drones cannot be loved, they will never be accepted."

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Since their invention, drones have had a loveless relationship with human society, primarily rooted in the context of war. Starting in World War I, UAVs were developed out of a need to reduce pilot casualties. Though UAVs were essentially remote controlled airplanes in the early to mid 20th century, their capabilities expanded enormously towards the end of the millennium, culminating in the invention of Predator, a UAV capable of launching Hellfire missiles at human targets. Today, these remote attacks are a heated point of controversy that has branded the drone as inhumane and cruel.

It's important to note that commercial drones are vastly different from those deployed by the military. They're much smaller and most fall under the category of quadcopters: helicopter-like drones that fly using four rotors. FutureLab, for example, uses quadcopters in its spaxel performances.

That's not to say that commercial drones don't carry negative baggage of their own. The militant group Islamic State or ISIS has been known to use quadcopters to shoot footage for propaganda and military intelligence purposes. In 2014, ISIS released footage of the Tabqa military airfield in northern Syria, shot from a DJI Phantom FC40. The following year, the group used UAVs to coordinate an attack on the Baiji oil refinery complex in Iraq.

It's the type of drone application that Futurelab is trying to shift society away from."A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle, a robot under control," says Bruckmayr. " The way a human uses the drone is his or her moral decision. We understand drones as vehicles to do stunning light art in the night sky."

Re-imagining drones as spaxels is part of a larger mission at Futurelab, which is stated as "drawing up blueprints of potential future scenarios." Through art-based, experimental forms, FutureLab explores new applications of existing technologies in artistic and societal contexts. Like Ars Electronica, FutureLab focuses on the intersection of art, technology, and society, and emphasizes the use of cross-disciplinary teams to achieve innovative work. In its team of 25, FutureLab leverages a wide range of disciplines including architecture, biology, music, physics, chemistry, and sociology.

Over the years, Futurelab's focus on interdisciplinary work has yielded a diverse mix of projects: a visualization of dyslexia through dance, virtual reality medical scans, a bridge that uses human movement to play music, and more. These projects often blur the lines between science and art, broadening applications of technology in the process.

In the case of spaxels, Futurelab has redefined drones as not only an aesthetic experience, but an emotional one. The research group is now developing deeper and more subliminal ways to connect with audience members.

"I call it 'patterns in the collective conscience'", says Bruckmayr. "[They're] beautiful patterns that deliver a subconscious message."

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These "patterns" refer to Jungian archetypes, a theory developed by Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. According to Jung, archetypes are universal patterns that are hidden within our subconscious. They are structures that give rise to specific images and motifs like "the mother" or "the child," which are shaped by our culture, history, and personal lives. Jung described archetypes as the psychic counterpart to instinct, or something primal that we find inherently familiar.

If designing spaxel formations around Jungian archetypes sounds far-fetched, think about the plethora of movies that are about an underdog or a hero with a dark past. These are narrative templates that have appeared over and over again, regardless of time period and place. Also, companies today use archetypes like "the Sage" and "the Ruler" to strengthen their brand identity when marketing to their customer base. Whether or not archetypes can translate to spaxel performances, however, remains to be seen.

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In a mesmerizing demonstration during the 2014 Mercedes-Benz Future Talk, Futurelab researchers Martina Mara and Christopher Lindinger revealed how autonomous cars and humans might interact one day using spaxels.

"I can summon [a spaxel] by raising my arm, make it stop with a Halt! gesture, and control its altitude," said Mara in an interview featured on Ars Electronica's blog. "The quadcopters, in turn, react to me—for example, they flash variously colored LED codes to acknowledge my presence or to signal that they’re about to brake."

It's an ongoing project between Mercedes-Benz and Futurelab where spaxels are employed as safe but realistic substitutes for self-driving cars. "In contrast to virtual simulation environments, utilizing our Spaxels enables us to deploy haptic proxies for autonomous vehicles—units that are physically palpable, exude kinetic energy, generate real gusts of wind," explained Lindinger, the Director of Research and Innovation at Futurelab.

The goal of the project is to develop a "new language" for communication between humans and autonomous vehicles. As the world moves closer to a future where self-driving cars and other intelligent machines are widely adopted, human-robot interaction design will be crucial. So far, the project has explored verbal, gestural, and haptic or tactile commands.

Perhaps it's the background music, but the video of the demonstration is astonishingly serene. In a brightly lit room, Mara and Lindinger move through a small swarm of drones, gently parting and pushing them using different signals and commands. In a striking photo of the event, a spaxel hovers over Mara's palm, like a butterfly about to land.

It's a step further into the future than spaxel light shows, where humans observe drones from afar. This is a search for familiarity and common ground, a shared context in which humans and robots can converse and coexist. 

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Image credit: Ars Electronica

Originally published in Modern Weekly (周末画报), March 2016.