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MIT to turn sky into dancing-umbrella light show

What happens when you give hundreds of strangers umbrellas fitted with multicolored LEDs? The sky gets groovy -- and maybe you learn something about networked robots.

A bird's view of the project.
Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

Forget the Umbrellas of Cherbourg. MIT presents the Umbrellas of Cambridge.

This Sunday evening, participants in a large-scale interactive performance will hoist programmable umbrellas outfitted with LED lights skyward in a shimmering spectacle of red, green, and blue.

The project, called "UP: The Umbrella Project," is part of a collaboration between MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Connecticut-based Pilobolus modern-dance company.

Using hand controllers designed by researchers at CSAIL's Distributed Robotics Lab, hundreds of MIT students, faculty, and staff will be able to independently change the color of their umbrellas, thus spontaneously choreographing a kind of umbrella dance that will then be projected onto a giant screen so everyone can see the aggregate moving image.

Umbrella holders can look up at a screen to see how their movements are affecting the whole. Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

Sunday night's event, which starts at 7:45 p.m. at Jack Barry field on MIT's Cambridge campus, marks the second performance of UP. The first took place on a rainy night last fall at the PopTech Conference in Maine, where more than 300 participants turned the sky into a moving sea of changing colors (with help from nearly 50 pounds of batteries).

If the below video of that performance is any indication, Sunday's show is bound to be a dazzling display that at times resembles quivering microscopic organisms. But beyond visuals, the project is also meant to contribute to the Distributed Robotics Lab's research into networked autonomous robots.

"Our work deals with developing algorithms that allow robots to operate independently within a large decentralized network so that the robots can coordinate and work together to accomplish a common task," said Kyle Gilpin, a postdoctoral associate at CSAIL. "Through UP, we can study the behaviors of large groups, which can be applied to our research in robotics."

Now, if MIT can just get robots to hold the programmable umbrellas...