VIDA 10.0

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VIDA 10.0 is an international competition created to reward excellence in artistic creativity in the fields of Artificial Life and related disciplines, such as robotics and Artificial Intelligence.We are looking for artistic projects that address the interaction between “synthetic” and “organic” life”.

  • First prize: €10,000
  • Second prize: €7,000
  • Third prize: €3,000

Required Elements

  • A 5-10 minute video with voice-over narration in either English or Spanish describing the artistic concept and the technological realization of the project presented. The jury's decision will be based almost entirely on the video.
  • supplemental materials
    • - A short biography (150-200 words) of the author(s).
    • - A description of the concept inspiring the project.
    • - Technical information about the project.
    • - One to three images (slides, photos or high-quality scans on CD or the Internet).
    • - A transcription of the video narration.

Submission Deadline October 22nd, 2007

Lee submitted a video on behalf of SWARM.

Here is our entry

SWARM: emergent spherical robots

Contact information: Lee C. Sonko 3435 24th St #9 San Francisco, CA 94110, USA 415-306-2151

A Short Biography of the Authors

The SWARM project has its origins with the Flaming Lotus Girls, a San Francisco based art collective that has produced such works as the Seven Sisters, the Hand of God, and the Serpent Mother, all large scale kinetic art installations. Michael Prados, a member of this group has long been interested in animatronics, mechatronics, robotics, and the synergy of artificial life, both with itself, and where where machines and humans interact. In January 2007, Michael proposed the project to the group. It was decided that a sister group be started. Thus SWARM was born. Twenty-five artists joined the project, some from the Flaming Lotus Girls. SWARM maintains many of the tenets of its sister organization: freely welcoming new working members, consensus process, and a "do-ocracy" (want it done? Do it and people may join!)

A Description of the Concept Inspiring the Project

SWARM is an effort to experiment with how relatively uninteresting and simple processes become complex and interesting when there are many creatures involved. Birds and ants and bees and sheep and many other animals let these simple rules guide their behaviors to create astounding results. Where does emergence from the simple to the complex happen? Where do “organic” actions come from?

Several new off-the-shelf technologies are available that make it possible for a robot to know where it is (GPS, embedded computers), where it’s going (accelerometers), what its neighbors are doing, (ultrasonics, Zigbee wireless), be able to sing (small amplifiers, mp3 players), and illuminate (LEDs). Many of these technologies have been available for a while but only in the last few years have they become inexpensive enough for consumer and artist use.

Technical information about the project


  • orb shells are CAD designed, CNC water cut, TIG welded aluminum spheres
  • internal mechanics consist of custom fabricated circuit boards and motor controllers, scooter motors, custom machined steel and aluminum parts
  • orb controller electronics and telemetry : embeddedARM/Technologic controller board running BusyBox Linux, using Zigbee radios for communication, GPS units, solid state accelerometers and yaw rate gyros, modern microcontrollers
  • 12/24 volt hybrid electronics system
  • 25 watt computer controlled sound system
  • custom built, software controlled, full color spectrum LEDs

Software :

  • Java based central controller unit creates generative music, produces scripts for sounds, lights, and orb unit control
  • extended Kalman filter for location detection
  • orb controller software written in C using custom cross compilation


  • pedal powered custom built stylized vehicle for transporting orbs

SWARM video Transcript submitted to VIDA 10.0

Total length 9:46

voiceover : SWARM is a fleet of semi-autonmomous rolling orbs. They were created to move, sing, dance, illuminate, and interact with one another and those around them. While they can play back set dances, they are most interesting when the controls are given over to the orbs themselves. By acting in concert, the individuals, together, behave in ways that not even their creators have forseen.

Simran Gleason, Generative Music

This is the generative music and light algorithm that we use. Basically we have a system where it is generative music. So it's essentially composing the music itself, and it's doing that by having different sets of sound files. It will randomly play them against each other to make a composition. Each orb gets a single set of sound files, and will then choose the sound to play and play it on its own orb, and other ones will play things. So as you are walking through them, you will hear a song being played in multiple parts, each one coming from a different place.

Now, here's where the orb starts composing it, where the whole SWARM starts doing composition. The SWARM knows where everything is - it knows where each orb is, and it knows the distances between them. So each orb will know who its neighbors are, how far away they are, and what they're playing. And so when it goes to choose its next sound, if it's close to another orb, it will have to play a sound that's in harmony with that one. if it's farther away, it's not so constrianed.

So as orbs come together, they start making sounds that are harmonious with each other. If there's a cluster of orbs, they'll be playing something over here that works together. One off in the distance might have a bit of contrast to it. But as it comes up closer, it will start playing things that are similar.

Here's an example of one timeline that plays a generative music song called _Pickerel Lake_. [Music begins. Computer screen displayed. Text on screen, "This music was composed by SWARM during the interview."] You can hear it choosing the different sounds as they move. And we're doing a similar thing with the colors. If you look here, you have a display of the color scheme. And the colors are all kind of reds. Now it's an analogous color scheme. If you look at the vector here, the colors basically go along with the different colors in different places. They are all constrained to be close to each other geometrically.

What we just saw was the timeline changing what color scheme it uses. It can do the split complement. You could make them a triad, so they are equidistant on the color wheel. And as you move this around, you can see the orbs changing color according to the color scheme. Now, the interesting thing is that you can see these little numbers moving around. What they're doing is the colors of each orb are taking a random walk. They get to move around a little bit. As the orbs get closer together, their walk is constrained to be closer to the color scheme. So, they might have random colors doing whatever, but, when they get close together, their colors get harmonious and their sounds get harmonious. It's like they work together when the orbs get closer together. This is how the SWARM is composing both the music that it's playing and the color scheme and lighting scheme that's going on.

Michael Prados, Design

Any machine, no matter how well designed, no matter how aesthetically envisioned, no matter how much its shape is evocative of things other than machines, it's going to seem, ultimately, like a machine. There's only so far that you can go in order to escape its machine nature. We feel that by building more than one of these things, we can transcend the machine nature. Now, this is based on some intuition that we gain from a couple different domains. One of them is a common model of the mind. This model was put forth by a man named Marvin Minsky. He wrote an excellent book called _The Society of Mind_. In this book, he puts forth the idea that our persona, our consciousness is not really a unitary existence. It's actually the result of several competing functional agents within the brain. These agents are constantly battling to control our own personality.But the only way that the consciousness, the true light, the unpredictable nature of human life can arise is by this constant argument between these agents.

Lee Sonko, Shell Fabrication & Power System

No! it's obviously not alive! It's a hunk of metal. I pull the switch on the side, and it stops. But, it's alive.

The piece is about interaction. The orbs are interacting with each other. There's all these complicated computer systems that make it so that this thing knows where the other orbs are, knows where all of them are, and how they work together. But what it's about is the orbs interacting with the people, or at least people seeing them as moving things. And it has to be a moving, physical, heavy, solid object [Lee lifts the orb an inch and drops it, making a thud]

Coreyfro, Fabrication

I don't view it as people dancing with the orbs, or dancing with robots. I don't think that they're dancing with robots. The fact that they're robotic is simply a way for these kinetic art sculptures to be controlled in a very undefined way. I mean, you have a lot of flexibility with robots, whereas most kinetic art pieces are limited to some very mechanical elements. These are still mechanical, but they have a lot of flexibility due to the fact that they are robots. People are dancing with that fact. They don't care that they're robots - they care that they're beautiful, and that they're moving. And, that is what we have.

Michael Prados

Robotics is a rapidly developing technology and most of its applications are purely pragmatic. This is why we wanted to use it and explore it's soulful side - it's humane side. In the future, there are going to be robots surrounding us. They'll be in our homes and in our workplace. It will be something that we see day to day. And if we don't take the time to question their humane aspects, their emotional aspects, their aesthetic aspects, then we're going to be living in a very boring world.

Steve "Dillo" Okay, Systems Software

People aren't used to seeing orbs. They're used to seeing robots in a certain way. They're used to seeing robots that walk, robots that roll, you know, on wheels or on treads So something that is just a geometric shape and rolls, and moves in different ways is interesting. And it kind of gets people thinking, and looking at them, and watching them.

Michael Prados

Emergent behavior is an interesting concept. It typically refers to things which arise in complex systems, of many different natures - in this case of a complex system consisting of many individuals. You can direct the individuals in simple ways, but once you put them all together, you find that the system exhibits complex behavior. This is the emergent behavior which basically comes out of nothing to suddenly suprise you.

Name Straps for Interviews

Ray Sykes - Mothership 
Lee Sonko - Shell Fabrication, Power System
Michael Prados - Design
Coreyfro - Parts Fabrication, PPP
Simran Gleason - Generative Music
Jon Foote - System Architecture
Steve " 'dillo" Okay - Systems Software


SWARM Contact:
Lee C. Sonko
3435 24th St #9 
San Francisco, CA 94110, USA
415 then 306 then 2151

SWARM is: (in alphabetic order)
Aerin Heinemeyer - Fabrication, Assembly, Support, Hive Illumination
Baba Frey - Electronics
Barry Cogbill - Solar Power Go-To Guy
Charlie Gadeken - Hive, Mothership
Charlotte Sanford - Painter, Fabric Mistress, Fabrication
Chris Gerbik
Coreyfro - Mechanical Parts Fabrication, Playa Proof Mother Node
Dawn Ryan - Shell Fabrication, Illuminator Assembly
Erik Swedberg - Power System, Electronics, Operations
James Stauffer - Mothership
John Humphrey - Solar Dude
Jonathan Foote - Organizer, System Architecture
Lee Sonko - Shell, Power, Bookkeeping, Organizing
Lisa Schile - Orb Shell Fabrication, Merchandise, GPS
Marc Hertlein - Laser Tower!
Mark Alexander - Sound System Design and Fabrication, Power
Marnia Johnston - Shell, Laser Perimeter, Mothership, Electronics 
Matt Cline - SPU Wrangler
Michael Prados - Organizer, Chief Architect 
Naemi Frey - Electronics
Nate Cabreana - Hive, Silly Worm
Niladri Bora - Machining and Embedded Programming
Pete Burnight - Prototyping
Phil Spitler - Visualizations
Ray Sykes - Mothership
Rick Lellinger - Illuminator Design & Layout, Electronics, GPS
Rick Taylor - Fabrication Assistance
Robert "trebor" Harris - Software, Operations
Simran Gleason - Generative Music and Color Algorithms, Timeline
Stefano Corazza - Mechanical Engineer, Sound System
Steve " 'dillo" Okay - System Programmer and SPU Wrangler
Tad Rollow - Systems Architecture, Navigation, RF Link, Hardware

Additional Thanks go to:
The Box Shop - A great place to create -
Burning Man - Initial project grant -

Video Credits:
Producer - Lee Sonko
Titles - Phil Spitler
Assistance - Rick Taylor, 'dillo
Additional Footage - Ryan Damm
Music - Simran Gleason, BLVD
Images - Tristan Savatier, SWARM members and friends
Equipment - Ryan Damm, Tad Rollow, Yasmin Mawaz-Khan