UP: The Umbrella Project was a collaboration between the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) and internationally acclaimed dance company Pilobolus, bringing together more than 250 members of the MIT community to participate in a large-scale live performance piece.
Each UP participant was provided an umbrella equipped with red, green and blue LED lights. Using hand controllers designed by researchers in the MIT Distributed Robotics Lab at CSAIL, participants, functioning like “human pixels,” could independently change the color of their umbrellas. Guided by the Pilobolus creative team, participants then used these umbrellas to create images projected in real time on a large outdoor screen — producing a colorful and ever-changing display that was both an experiment and live art.
In exploring this kind of collective behavior, the Umbrella Project advanced the study of “swarm intelligence” in the hopes that these insights could be applied to design more human-like robots. The project aided the Distributed Robotics Lab’s research in creating algorithms that can help large groups of robots coordinate with one another to achieve a common task — whether it’s exploring Mars or searching for survivors in a collapsed building.
“While our work with robotics and Pilobolus’ work with modern dance may seem at first glance unrelated, we have found there is a wealth of knowledge to be gained at the intersection of art and science that offers deep insight into human behavior, findings that are incredibly useful to the field of computer science,” says Daniela Rus, Director of CSAIL.
“We’ve discovered that Daniela Rus is interested in the same questions as we are regarding the power of groups and the idea that groups are more capable than the sum of their parts,” explained Itamar Kubovy, Executive Director of Pilobolus. “UP works to demonstrate this reality by giving a group of untrained strangers tricked out umbrellas and 60 minutes to create something beautiful and moving.”