Zooids: Building Blocks for Swarm UI

Robots are taking over factories and warehouses, but their next stop might be your desktop or kitchen counter. These tiny “Zooids” work together at high speed to act as tools, display information or move things around like little ants.

The bots, named after the individual creatures that make up colonial organisms, were presented earlier this week at the Association for Computing Machinery’s UIST conference. Their creators, a multi-university group of roboticists, propose them as the beginning of a new type of “swarm user interface.”

Each robot has little wheels, a touch sensor and gyros, and an optical sensor on top that monitors its position by watching patterns coming from a projector overhead. They don’t operate independently, rather taking instructions on where to go from the computer tracking them.

There’s no shortage of possibilities. The robots can arrange themselves into shapes to display information, and you can interact directly with them by grabbing one and spinning or moving it — imagine an EQ materializing in front of you, or dials scooting over to your fingers when you open a certain app or game.

Zooids is an open-source open-hardware platform for developing tabletop Swarm User Interfaces, a new class of human-computer interfaces comprised of many autonomous robots that handle both display and interaction.

The platform consists of a collection of custom-designed wheeled micro robots, a radio base-station, a highspeed DLP structured light projector for optical tracking, and a software framework for application development and control. All the material can be found at: