Sky Compass: Going Beyond Navigation by the Stars

As Tokyo will be facing the challenge of hosting a huge influx of tourists in 2020, NTT, Japan's biggest Telecommunication company, and Ars Electronica Futurelab are working on a sky compass to guide the people.

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Tokyo is the ultimate in urbanization, nearly 50% bigger than the next-largest metropolitan area. Plus, Japan’s capital has retained its crown as the world’s #1 megalopolis longer than any other city. Tokyo’s astonishing density is further intensified by an ever-growing influx of tourists, which is a major challenge for a capital that expects to soon be hosting visitors on an even grander scale in conjunction with a major public event, and an item high on the future development agenda formulated by NTT, the major Japanese telecommunications provider.

Ars Electronica Futurelab Team testing Spaxels as a signage at the basement rehearsal studios.

Rehearsals at the Ars Electronica Futurelab with (left to right) Otto Naderer, Peter Holzkorn, Hideaki Ogawa, Martin Mörth, Michael Platz. Credit: Markus Scholl

As a follow-up to two collaborative pilot projects in communications design that tackled the issue of creating a signage system that is fresh and exciting, NTT and the Ars Electronica Futurelab will be continuing their joint venture in the years ahead. But they are not simply carrying on where they left off at the 2016 Ars Electronica Festival—Ars Wildcard+,  a refined app-based information system that’s supported by NTT’s angle-free object-search technology, and the Deformation Lamp, a magical lighting system that can make static objects move, deform or flutter. Now, the two firms are experimenting with SPAXELS®.

Spaxels Reharsal for a Sky Compass that should guide people in Tokyo during big events in no later than 2020.

The formation flight scenario at which the SPAXELS ® group to retain a signage. Credit: Markus Scholl

This illuminated swarm of unmanned aerial vehicles, which was invented by Ars Electronica Futurelab’s senior director Horst Hörtner and made history at the Drone100 event, has already developed a language of its own. The stunning versatility of the SPAXELS® provides an endless array of shapes and vast combinations of colors, and this makes beholding light paintings in the sky an emotionally charged experience for spectators.

Since drones are already providing manifold services—for example, in filmmaking, mountain rescue and logistics — they will become even more important as an element of everyday life in the future. They have not yet been used either as a guidance (directional) system or as a form of signage, which is a language in its own right. There are numerous challenges NTT and the Ars Electronica Futurelab are facing at the outset of their joint research, which is also the starting point for a venture on a larger scale, the so-called “SPAXELS® Research Initiative.” (working title)

Hideaki Ogawa is holding up the leach for the Spaxel's "Sky Compass" reheasals.

Hideaki Ogawa is holding up the leash and the ring for the drone to walk by. Credit: Markus Scholl

Until drones can be used on an everyday basis, many issues will have to be resolved—besides the legal aspects, those of a technological and psychological nature. The acceptance of drones in an everyday environment is not yet all-pervasive in society; they’re still flown primarily by hobbyists. But, after all, we’re talking about Japan, where there is unsurpassed openness towards the use of robots. Thus, with 2020 just around the corner and in the face of rapid technological development, the ever-growing acceptance of the man-machine dialogue is inevitable.

Evolution of the Sky Compass:

The idea of utilizing SPAXELS® as signage and a navigation system was the brainstorm of Ars Electronica Futurelab staffers Hideaki Ogawa, Roland Haring and Nicolas Naveau, who sketched the use of drones in two-fold fashion: either as a dog on a leash or as a swarm of quadcopters forming an arrow or indent. The research challenge for the first model was to create a User Responsibility Design that clarifies the difference between the wire-based solution (dog on a leash) and the wireless one (the signage in the sky). With both of them subsumed under the working title “Sky Compass,” the first solution is a personal navigation service, whereas the second one is public.

Spaxel on a leach guiding its master to the desired location.

The wired drone that resembles a dog on a leash in communication with its master. Hideaki Ogawa at the rehearsal space of the Ars Electronica Futurelab. Credit: Markus Scholl

Other tasks revolve around the questions of how to communicate with the “flying dog” and how a smartphone can connect to the “smart pet” hovering above the user. Plus, there’s another research challenge: creating a tangible animation design. The huge arrow in the sky directs people, but, besides navigation, it also enhances social awareness by collecting big data indicating the audience’s emotions, and by gathering information about congestion at the event. Ultimately, there’s the need to develop a generally-accepted language like that on traffic signs.

There have recently been rehearsals at the Ars Electronica Futurelab’s studio level to assess the possibilities of communication in various scenarios.

The first concept of a drone-based guidance system to be tested was the wired one. Whenever a master is in possession of a wired ring interface, the drone takes off and follows. In the absence of a ring wearer, it descends and lands. By literally telling the drone a destination, it begins to guide (move). It also projects graphics onto the ground so the participant has access to additional information. To connect the drone and speech recognition , R-env System is used.

Spaxels Formation Flight at the basement of the Ars Electronica Futurelab.

SPAXELS® can align to yield an arrow or any other abstract symbol. Credit: Markus Scholl

The second concept provides a so-called Sky Language. In the laboratory situation, the drones start to form some key expression like an X or an arrow to navigate pedestrians. After the introduction of the basic concept, the drones start to react to real-time information. It indicates the most popular venue at the NTT Forum and provides congestion information.

The final destination is 2020 when Tokyo will host the Olympic Games. Then, the whole idea of having drones involved in a Sky Compass showing visitors their way to the Olympic stadium will have become a spectacular innovation and an exciting experience, as the Ars Electronica Futurelab and NTT jointly animate Tokyo in the year 2020.


NTT R&D Forum 2017

Thursday & Friday, February 16-17, 2017; 10 AM-5 PM

NTT Musashino Research and Development Center, Tokyo, Japan


You must pre-register to attend this event.

Contact Info:

2020 Epoch-making Project

NTT Service Evolution Laboratories