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Robot-controlled table lets you manipulate liquid rocket fuel with your face

PROTEUS_an analog digital interactive display at Ars Electronica

We love ferrofluid, the crazy ink-like rocket fuel that moves around seemingly of its accord, like the Venom suit from Spider-Man in its liquid form. We also love robots, especially when they are put to particularly innovative use. And we love awesome A.I. tech demos of things like face tracking.

You could say, then, that we’re the ideal target audience for an amazing new art installation developed by Zurich-based designers Maria Smigielska and Pierre Cutellic. Called “Proteus,” it’s a wall-mounted robot table that uses real-time face tracking to manipulate a ferrofluid display. Check out the video up top to see it in action.

The work is currently on display at the Ars Electronica Center in Linz, Austria, as part of a “Creative Robotics” exhibition. It is composed of a KUKA KR3 robot mounted to the wall, with a custom magnetic end effector that manipulates the ferrofluid. This ferrofluid is arranged in a 92 dish grid containing alcohol and the liquid rocket fuel. Using FaceOSC face tracking software and the KUKA|prc plugin, the robot magnetic effector can be manipulated to create all kinds of beautiful patterns in response to how viewers move their face.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

“The piece is a hybrid analogue and digital, interactive display,” Smigielska told Digital Trends. “Analogue because it works with matter, which in our case is ferrofluid; digital because its pattern is modulated by magnetic fields and robotic interface. Similarly to any display, it is based on a grid, but instead of simple color intensity, each pixel contains a much richer pattern dependant on user interaction — namely real-time face tracking data, as well as the behavior of neighboring ferropixels.”

What is the point of it? According to Smigielska, the ferrofluid’s constant switching in form is a reference to the stories of Greek god Proteus, which gave the project its name. Really, though, it’s just a beautiful art installation that merges the worlds of tech and artistry to create something stunning.

The project was supported by the Creative Robotics Lab at University of Arts and Design Linz, KUKA, Robots in Architecture, and Ars Electronica Center Linz.

In some ways, it reminds us of this beautiful table creation by artist Bruce Shapiro, which also borrowed its inspiration from Greek mythology and uses a tiny two-motor robot and magnet to create constantly shifting patterns in sand. In both cases, we don’t know exactly why we want one –just that we really, really do!

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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