Imagine being able to interact with virtual objects that are tangible in any given 3D space. For instance, designing a building using hovering 3D geometry that can be manipulated and positioned into a myriad of configurations. Got that?

That’s what researchers from Queen’s University’s Human Media Lab (Ontario) are developing with their BitDrones interactive flying microbots, which allow humans to interact with (build) physical structures through the use of micro-drones.

The researchers designed three components to make it possible for BitDrones to act as a human-computer interaction platform. ‘PixelDrones’, which are outfitted with an RGB LED and small dot-matrix display, ‘ShapeDrones’ that feature a mesh enclosure that are illuminated with an LED, effectively turning them into voxels, and ‘DisplayDrones’ that are outfitted with a curved touchscreen, camera and Android smartphone board. Each performs a different roll and can be combined for any number of interactive applications.

Each drone is outfitted with a reflective marker, which allows cameras to pick up their positions as well as other objects in an enclosed space. This allows the user to use gestures or physically interact with each drone- for example, a series of drones situated on an even plane can be rotated like a wheel, which emulates the action of scrolling through a computer file system. The user can then press the DisplayDrone’s touchscreen to select an object file (or any file for that matter), after which ShapeDrones coalesce and form the designated shape. Alternatively, the user can simply use gestures (i.e.: pinch, swipe, etc.) move the ShapeDrones physically into the form desired.

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According to the researchers, there are a ton of applications the BitDrones are suited for–3D modeling, molecular modeling, medical imaging, robotics and of course gaming. However, it’s the long-term goal that’s really interesting. The team describe their development as ‘the first step towards creating interactive self-levitating programmable matter’, meaning matter that can change its shape in almost any fashion using tiny swarms of micro-drones. It will be fascinating to see the possibilities that can become a reality using those drones in the (hopefully) near future. If you don’t believe me, have a look at this clip from Big Hero 6

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