Math That Pursues, Spins and Swarms

Helene Stapinski in The New York Times:

MathBehind a black curtain in a downstairs corner of the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan (known as MoMath), a small group of mathematicians, designers and engineers was hard at work — laughing, shouting, clapping and having a blast, while being chased by robots. They were doing final testing on an exhibit called Robot Swarm, opening Dec. 14 and featuring dozens of glowing, motorized, interactive robots that resemble horseshoe crabs. The museum says it is the nation’s most technologically ambitious robotics exhibit. But the assembled experts, standing in stocking feet, were as excited as a gaggle of 6-year-olds. Sealed under an 11-by-12-foot glass floor, the small, colored robots swarm, skitter and react to whoever is standing on top of the glass. It is a strangely exhilarating sensation to be shoeless and have creatures — albeit human-made, computer-controlled creatures — react to your every step. “It’s cool, right?” asked a creator of the exhibit, Glen Whitney, who is also a co-founder of the museum. “It’s a feeling of power.”

Four visitors at a time will don harnesses with a small “reflector pod” on the right shoulder. That sends a location signal to overhead cameras, which transmit the information to the robots — which, in turn, move in accord with a variety of programmed settings determined by visitors working a control panel. Set the robots to “Run Away” mode, for example, and you can’t help feeling like Godzilla, stomping around the glass floor and scattering the frightened robots to the far corners of the grid. “Pursue” mode can be downright creepy, with the robots — like giant glowing cockroaches or trilobites — following you everywhere, trying to get as close to you as possible, surrounding you and then refusing to go away — until the algorithm is changed. In the more amusing “Spin” mode, the robots play a game of Simon Says, turning in whatever direction you turn, spinning when you spin.

More here.