Researchers Build Physical Virtual Interface From Tiny ‘BitDrones’



/ 2 years ago

A group of ShapeDrones, one of the three types of BitDrones

Drones are everywhere in recent times, from consumer toys to military weapons and even postal delivery. It shouldn’t come as too shocking then that a new use of drones is being developed, this time as a fully 3D physical interface straight out of a sci-fi flick.

Developed by researchers from Queen’s University, a proof-of-concept of their new drone-based virtual interface, called BitDrones has been unveiled. The system makes use of three main types of drone in its operation. PixelDrones carry a simple LED screen to display information. ShapeDrones are small cube-shaped display drones that can move relative to other drones to represent objects to form a full 3D display. finally, DisplayDrones deliver a touchscreen interface to the user. These units, together with a 3D motion capture system are able to interpret a user’s input and display to him what is desired.

So far the system is in its infancy, only able to support a dozen drones, each of which are not inconspicuous and stay airborne using a set of small propellers. The researchers involved wish to see the system up-scaled to be able to handle thousands of individual drones concurrently, each distinctly smaller, even less than an inch in size.

Researcher interacts with ShapeDrone

Interaction is done by physically grasping and manipulating the drones

The simple applications the BitDrones can handle so far are just that, basic, but show the promise of the system. The systems currently showcased make the system appear very intuitive, with the file browsing done simply by touching the relevant drone. And imagining an architectural model featuring hundreds of drones instead of three could allow easy 3D visualization of complex objects. You’d just have to be careful not to knock them by accident! Overall the system acts almost like a flying 3D touchscreen, already containing features such as pinch zoom and rotate, performed with two hands on drones instead of two fingers on a screen. Adding the touchscreen DisplayDrones to the mix just expands the possibilities even further.

I’m very excited to see how this technology can evolve, even as the physical interface risks being marginalized by the fully virtual. Afterall, it’s hard to see most people flying large numbers of drones around, instead of just donning a headset or other virtual interface.

Image thanks to Queen’s University.


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