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Flying lampshades: Cirque du Soleil plays with drones

In a new video, the billion-dollar entertainment giant shows what it can do with a few quadcopters, and a lot of imagination.

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The Cirque du Soleil has released a video with drones playing the roles of flying lampshades. The idea is to showcase how the technology could be used to interact with people in entertainment. Screenshot by CNET

If anyone could turn quadcopters into romantic, magical, flying lampshades, it's the Cirque du Soleil.

The Cirque, the worldwide, billion-dollar-plus entertainment empire, on Monday unveiled a video showcasing its use of quadcopters -- drones, to you and me -- as a lyrical storytelling tool.

Titled "Sparked: A live interaction between humans and quadrocopters," the video tells the story of a lamp repairman working late at night, who suddenly has to deal with a blown fuse, and thus, no lights.

Forced to continue working by the dim light of a single kerosene lamp, the repairman seems defeated. Until, suddenly, his workshop full of lamps come to life, rising into the air behind him, drones hidden inside each of the lampshades.

In a supporting "making of" video, Cirque du Soleil executive creative director of creation Welby Altidor said that the Montreal-based company wanted to explore what it could do with an emerging technology, to "give it some meaning, and give it some magic, and bring it to another level....We saw right away that there was a potential with [quadcopters] to explore where else could we go and what type of interactions could they have with humans."

The Cirque du Soleil video, of course, isn't the first to look at how drones can be used in entertainment. Last month, Disney filed patent applications related to the idea of using drones in choreographed performances at Disneyland or other theme parks.

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Disney last month filed patents related to the choreographed use of drones at Disneyland or other theme parks. Disney

And the Cirque is no stranger to looking for ways to marry technology with art. In 2012, the company partnered with Google on the creation of Movi.Kanti.Revo, an interactive performance in which users could affect what happens on screen thanks to the use of core Web technologies like HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript.

Flying lamps

In the new video, our repairman looks up from his poorly lighted table as one by one, the lamps begin flying around the room, each a different style and color, but each -- as befitting the Cique du Soleil's famous aesthetic -- lovely, unique and graceful.

As the repairman gets up to approach the 10 flying lamps, they back off almost nervously, as would curious but untamed animals. But really, they're not afraid. They want to interact. They want to play. Gradually, they begin mimicking him -- as he kneels, they sink toward the floor. As he stands back up, they rise into the air. As he spreads his arms, they widen their circle around him. He begins to dance, and so do they.

The video, produced by the Cirque in conjunction with ETH Zurich and Verity Studios, is an exploration of how drones can be used in entertainment, especially when you dress them up and, to an extent, anthropomorphize them.

It's also a terrific use of quadcopter technology. Those who have seen the devices flying will recognize the way they move -- as well as the fact that they seem to be DJI Phantoms. Yet, viewers will still appreciate the way the video's producers managed to get them to fly in concert, without the observer being able to actually see the machines. Altidor himself noted that it was fun to figure out how to incorporate drones into a small story, and to make them invisible. "We did all kinds of tests," he said. "We came up with all kinds of ideas. We even had flying heads [on top of the drones] to see what kind of effect it could create."

But then, the lightbulb moment, as it were. Someone mentioned lampshades, "and that made me stop in my tracks," Altidor said. "That could be really interesting. What if we had a number of lampshades starting to fly?"

The result is musical and charming, like much of the Cirque's work. That's especially true because, as Altidor put it, the producers managed to give each of the lampshades a bit of individual personality.

"Is there a future for this in the performing arts," said Raffaello D'Andrea, a professor at ETH Zurich and the founder of Verity Studios. "Absolutely. We're just getting started."