Cool Drone Magic From Marco Tempest

We techies, we all want to build stuff that is magical. Most of us have little clue what that entails. This is why I have enjoyed working with musicians and other performing artists (e.g., [1]), who understand wonder and magic, not to mention human perception and movement.

These days, there is a vast and growing interest in human-robot interaction, self-driving cars, drones, and so on.  Much of this work is not magical in the least. Usually, this is because brilliant engineers are not really brilliant imagineers.

Fortunately, drones are now cheap and easy enough that they are getting in the hands of cops, artists and teenagers—and thus are entering out culture.  In my view, one glorious circus performance is more significant that a thousand delivery drone concepts.

Of course, if the goal is to create magic, then we really should collaborate with, well, magicians.

Along this line, illusionist Marco Tempest has released some cool videos, demonstrating amazing multi-UAV behavior, apparently under gesture and/or voice command. Actually, I’m not really sure how it all works—the very definition of magic, no?

The video is awesome, but just as interesting, he articulates the principles that make these little buzzing light bulbs seem alive, intelligent, and communicating with him.

The algorithms that enable the UAVs to fly in close, coordinated swarm that reacts to him are:

“mathematics that can be mistaken for intelligence, and intelligence for personality.”

What a lovely phrase!

If the whole idea of social robots is to make people perceive the artificial intelligence as a friendly agent, then the game is really about creating anthropomorphism, which is

an illusion created by technology and embroidered by our imagination to become an intelligent flying robot, a machine that appears to be alive.

From this point of view, all that rigamarole about big data and vast computational power is kind of off-target. The target is to create the illusion of intelligence—in the mind of the human observer.

This illusion works through the same principle that most magic tricks work:

Our imagination is more powerful than our reasoning and it’s easy to attribute personality to machines.

Another marvelous phrase!

Really cool! When can I buy a suitcase full of these intelligent drones??

By the way, this is one of the most compelling “gestural” interfaces I’ve seen.  No phone.  No goggles.  No joy stick.  Just body and hands. So, so, slick!

By the way, I would add one more little trick that would deepen the illusion:  the drones should have individual names, and should respond to their name.  I would predict that once we have applied a personal name to each flyer, we will soon perceive individual differences among them, even if they are actually programmed identically.  (Though, it would be cool to have each be programmed different.)

  1. Mary Pietrowicz, Robert E. McGrath, Guy Garnett, and John Toenjes, Multimodal Gestural Interaction in Performance, in Whole Body Interfaces Workshop at CHI 2010. 2010: Atlanta.
  2. Marco Tempest. Work. 2017,


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