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Semiautonomous orbs rock Yuri's Night

Project originally designed for Burning Man delights crowd at Bay Area's version of the worldwide celebration of man's first trip into space.

Swarm is a project made up of six large orbs in which five of the orbs are tethered to a single 'mother node' that can then autonomously direct the others in open space. Here, project member Corey Fro chases after one of the orbs, trying to keep it from crushing another robot.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Corey Fro is chasing a large metal orb across the pavement at the NASA Ames Research Center here. He is desperately trying to make sure that the orb doesn't crush a nearby robot.

The orb in question is being remotely directed by a kid wielding an Xbox-like wireless controller, but it's the kid's first time using the device, and he really doesn't have any idea what he's doing.

Swarm is the work of at least 30 artists and is the continuation of a project originally created for Burning Man 2007. It is expected to be even more developed for Burning Man 2008. Swarm 2.1

And that's why the orb has rolled away and is bearing down rapidly on the unsuspecting and defenseless robot a few yards away. In the end, Fro caught the wayward sphere and saved the day, or at least the innocent robot.

If this sounds unusual, it isn't. At least not at Yuri's Night, a 12-hour celebration of space, science, music, and art held at NASA Ames and other locations around the world Saturday in honor of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's first flight into space.

The orb is part of Swarm, a project designed for Burning Man built around the concept of autonomous spheres that can be programmed to perform in one of many ways.

Or, as Fro put it, "They're kinetic sculptures that drive around in an autonomous but choreographed pattern."

Fro is just one of about 30 people who built the orbs for Burning Man 2007, and now the project is returning to Burning Man 2008 as an art piece partially funded--and therefore honored as noteworthy--by the curators of the annual countercultural arts festival.

But before it can go back out to the Nevada desert, Swarm had to make an appearance at Yuri's Night, and it was certainly one of the main attractions for the thousands in attendance Saturday.

And that's at least in large part because of what they can do.

"The orbs control their own movement, light show, and music," explained Fro. "The way they do that is by communicating with the mother node."

"The Swarm of autonomous beings by their very nature will have emergent and complex behavior," the project's Web site states. "They will flock, flirt, dance and interact, and their actions will surprise and astonish even us, their creators. They are simple, but together they will behave in ways more complex than we can predict."

At Yuri's Night Bay Area on Saturday, the orbs from Swarm were one of the most popular projects on display. Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

The idea is that five of the six orbs--which look something like specialized see-through hubcaps turned into spheres with really expensive robotic controls and LEDs inside--are subservient to the desires of the lead orb, or mother node.

The only information the subservient orbs send out is GPS and accelerometer data, which they send to the lead orb, which, Fro said, uses that information to coordinate the movements and lighting effects of all the spheres.

"So the movement coordination allows it to follow the leader, drive in patterns or (even) make the orb representation of planetary systems," Fro said. "But once they're running under control of the mother node, there's no control from humans.

That means, once all the orbs are in motion--something that wasn't on display at Yuri's Night--the only way to stop them is direct the mother node to stop.

Each orb, Fro said, is driven by counterbalancing using the weight of lead-acid batteries as ballast. By swaying the ballast forward, the orb moves forward as the center of gravity changes.

"To turn right or left," Fro said, "we swing the ballast right or left."

At Burning Man, where the entire project, in its 2008 configuration, will be unfurled, the Swarm team plans to erect a mast on the open desert floor that projects a large laser circle on the ground.

The idea is to define a safety zone so that pedestrians, bicyclists, and those on other forms of conveyance are safe.

"If they walk into that circle," Fro said, "all bets are off."

I was very happy to see the orbs at Yuri's Night because Swarm was one of the legendary art projects I missed at Burning Man 2007. It was something I heard a lot of people talk about after the fact in very reverent terms.

And as befits many Burning Man art projects, the 2008 version is sure to be new and improved. In fact, Fro said, the Xbox-like controllers were a big part of what's new for this year: joysticks that can allow anyone to take very subtle control over the orbs.

But it's also very easy to lose control of them, as I saw multiple times on Saturday as Fro would hand the controller over to one person or another.

"Try not to rock it so much," he said to someone at one point, "because if you hit the kill switch, it will stop."