UP: The Umbrella Project

In collaboration with Pilobolus, the world famous modern dance troupe, the Distributed Robotics Lab created UP, a large-scale live performance piece that arms untrained participants from all walks of life with umbrellas fabricated with multi-colored LED lights.  Each participant spontaneously interacts with the group and, by manipulating the color of his or her own umbrella, creates an ever changing landscape of hues as they move through space to bring art to life.  UP premiered at the PopTech Conference in Camden, Maine in October 2012 and was performed again at MIT in May 2013. Each time over three-hundred participants lit up the sky on a rainy night.




The UP umbrellas are equipped with custom-designed, user-controllable red, green, and blue LEDs that can be independently switched on and off with the push of a button.  The LEDs are located in the umbrella’s handle and project color upward to illuminate the umbrella’s translucent dome.  We captured this action from above using a suspended camera that projected its field of view onto a large screen so that all performers could see a global perspective of the shapes being formed.  Each participant becomes a live pixel that autonomously controls her own color based on what she sees in both her immediate neighborhood and what she sees happening at a global perspective on the projector screen.



From the perspective of an artist, the UP show exemplifies the concept of authorship without ownership.  Each participant directly contributes to the outcome, but no one person is in control of the entire group.  As roboticists, we call this concept distributed control.  Each autonomous agent makes independent decision based on local information, but there is no centralized leader.  With UP, we are exploring the frontier between robotics and art to learn how to create stunningly complex performance art while simultaneously  learning how to program more capable robots.