The Art of

Artificial Collectives on the Rise

The Art of Artificial Collectives

From choreographing a swarm of airborne vehicles in the sky, to collective autonomous machines

Inside Futurelab: 25th Anniversary Series – Episode 6 – The Art of Swarms

Artificial Collectives

A Paradigm Shift Takes Off

The story of the Ars Electronica Futurelab inventing the “Spaxels” – a swarm of illuminated drones – is the story of a paradigm shift that was quite typical for the specific way of thinking at the Futurelab. In 2012, Ars Electronica was assigned with the task of creating the Klangwolke. For the culminating point in the staging, the team of Ars Electronica clearly wanted to break with the traditions of the Klangwolke, and replace the usual huge fireworks. This was the entry point for Horst Hörtner’s dream of sending out a swarm of drones with lights to create a new aesthetic in the night sky.

Word about the Ars Electronica Futurelab’s achievements with the Spaxels in Linz swiftly spread internationally. The fruits of that daring endeavor enabled the Futurelab team to enter a phase of several years in which their capabilities were in great demand across the globe and further development and research on that subject could be financed.

A scalable system
for robotic organisms

In order to be able to quickly come up with new prototypes for any kind of autonomous vehicle from any manufacturer, the Ars Electronica Futurelab developed an own operating system: SwarmOS. This opening of perspective also brought into view questions that went far beyond choreographing a swarm of Spaxels in the sky. Questions looking not only at the interactions within a swarm of autonomous machines, but also between humans and such machines—in fact, a research horizon that would carry the team far into the future of their work.

A paradigm shift


Klangwolke ABC

People create their own characters equipped with a radio receiver and LEDs, enabling them to communicate and collaborate with others on the day of the voestalpine Klangwolke in Linz – forming words or entire phrases wandering at the Danube shoreline.

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Spaxels / Klangwolke – Quadrocopter

For the culminating point of the 2012 Klangwolke staging, a swarm of 49 LED-equipped quadcopters—so-called spaxels— performed an extraordinary choreography in the air.

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Swarm Arena

A swarm of ground display bots offer spectators in a stadium additional information about the ongoing tournaments. The dynamically reconfigured formations of the moving screens form a “liquid display".

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Future Ink

The "Future Ink Project" researches into the secrets and the future of creativity, and is designed around five core concepts: Space Ink, AI Ink, Body Ink, Bio Ink, and Mind Ink.

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more projects


“It may be a philosophical question at what point a decision deserves to be called truly autonomous in a technical apparatus, but we humans certainly perceive autonomy, form, and purpose in the coordinated behavior of a multitude. From this perspective, the expressive potential of a distributed autonomous system is vast ... .”

Peter Holzkorn
Key Researcher Ars Electronica Futurelab

Born in 1985 in Vienna, Austria. Studied computer science at the Vienna University of Technology and interactive telecommunications at New York University. Member of the Ars Electronica Futurelab since 2011. Key researcher for Artificial Collectives, leading activities in the area of swarm robotics, such as "Swarm Arena" and "Space Ink".

Peter Holzkorn

Credit: Martin Hieslmair

“Creative expression does not come from technology or from an instrument. It really comes from inside of human nature. … Of course, it is the technology that [often] makes everything possible. But the key question is still: Where is my soul? Where is Kotodama? Can a drone have Kotodama? And can the drone’s Kotodama convey [something] to the artist? ... it is these creative questions that move us ahead.”

Nobutaka Ide
CEO and President of Wacom Co., Ltd.

“Both the 'Klangwolke ABC' and the Spaxels each had their special mission as part of the overall concept of the 'Ars Electronica Klangwolke'. While the Spaxels replaced fireworks and laser shows with something entirely new that the people would enjoy, the 'Klangwolke ABC' always related to society with the aim of letting the people become the protagonists.”

Emiko Ogawa
Head of Prix Ars Electronica

Born in 1979 in Tokyo, Japan. Artist and curator. BA in psychology from the University of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo. Member of the artist group h.o, member of the Ars Electronica Futurelab 2008 - 2009, head of Prix Ars Electronica since 2013.

Emiko Ogawa

Credit: Florian Voggeneder

Kinoshita Shingo

Credit: Kinoshita Shingo

“Developing new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) is important, but even more important are two additional things: artistic expression obtaining people's empathy and art thinking as the ability to define the future. The Ars Electronica Futurelab is the only institution that has these two excellent abilities and at the same time a deep knowledge of technologies. We are a technology-first organization, but the Ars Electronica Futurelab is well balanced among society, art, science, and technology.”

Kinoshita Shingo
Executive research engineer and project director at NTT Service Evolution Labs

Born in Wakayama, Japan, in 1968. B.E. from Osaka University, Japan, in 1991. M.Sc. with distinction from University College London, UK, in 2007. Executive research engineer and project director at NTT Service Evolution Labs since 1991. Visiting professor at Osaka University of Art since 2018. Visiting executive research engineer at Dentsu Lab Tokyo since 2018.

“The Spaxels were intended as an art project and this is the way we implemented them.”

Horst Hörtner
Co-founder & director of Ars Electronica Futurelab

Born in 1965 in Vordernberg, Styria. Media artist, musician, and researcher. Expert in Human Computer Interaction. Co-founder of artists' group x-space (together with Gerfried Stocker) 1991–1995. 1996, technical director of Ars Electronica Center. Co-founder and since 1996 director of Ars Electronica Futurelab.

Horst Hörtner


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