Is this Life? v1.0

Project description

The robot spheres are slowly drifting in the large space continuously arranging themselves in the spontaneous choreography organised by following 3 simple rules of boid algorithm based on Rainold rules. The choreography is not predefined but everchanging in shifts between the order and chaos. There is no end or start time, the movement is continuous, even when the audience is not there. There are only two basic interactions from which all of the behaviours emerge. The spheres recognise the visitors as friends - as one of their own, or as predators – avoiding them. They could slowly follow them, “bounce” of them, encircle them, avoid them… the changes between these behaviours shift, making an impression like they were startled or they have changed their mind. All the movement and behaviours are gradual and calm, on the verge of noticeable.  

Despite being a technologically rich installation, Is this Life? carefully hides it. The algorithm and the robots hosted within smooth porcelain shells do not speak about themselves but point to more fundamental organisational laws. The perfect spheres, found in megastructures like planets and the microscopic world of the atom, are an expression of these organisational laws. By obscuring the underlining mechanisms of the installation, the installation calls the audience to uncover its principles and discover its inner workings. Soon, the observer is set to mentally test out the limits of such a system and wonder whether he or she is also part of it. The interplay of the spheres with each other and with the audience places the viewers in an endlessly feedbacking system of information. Robots and audience alternately become receivers, transmitters or the data itself.

This system of information points toward relationships between humans and technology which are both adaptive and symbiotic.


Reality is defined by physical/natural laws (Greek: physis=nature) like the Newton’s law of gravitation, that can be abstracted into mathematical formulas/codes/principles. One of these principles is self-organization and the area of swarm intelligence.

Swarm refers to loosely structured cluster of interacting agents. Swarm structure arises from very simple rules that the agents follow. Through these rules a complex behavior emerges. The individuals in the swarm/flock are autonomous agents. They have a limited ability to perceive the environment - an agent can observe other agents only if they are within a limited distance. They independently process the information received from the environment and make decisions based on it. There is no leader to define the behaviour of the group. Autonomous agents create robust systems that can easily adapt to changes in their environment.

Complex behaviour emerges from three simple steering behaviours:

  • Alignment - adjusting the direction and amount of speed

  • Cohesion - forming groups with nearby individuals

  • Separation - avoiding crowds and maintaining space

Its organization can’t be interpreted by observing an individual agent and only occurs through the interaction between them. It is considered a decentralized self-organized system. Swarm intelligence systems have an ability to act in a coordinated way, without anyone controlling them, externally or internally. It can be also used to describe social behavior of humans.

One of the more popular algorithms used for swarming is Boid algorithm following Rainold rules. Craig Reynolds is an American computer engineer specialised in computer graphics and modelling of artificial life. Most of his work is based on procedural computer programs that simulate the behaviour of large groups of animals. In 1986, he created a computer model for animation movements of animals in flocks (such as birds or fish). He called these generic units used as autonomous agents boids (bird-oid object, "bird-like. object”).

In the field of swarm robotics, tasks like mapping or foraging make use of boids’ simulations. This is because these tasks lend themselves well to be solved by a group of small robots. The installation Is this Life? will use the same principles to create intricate interactions between robots and the audience.

In this short statement I am talking about emergence and briefly reflecting on the title

In this clip I am explaining some of the intentions behind the project, the importance of the physicality and the use of technology

Marko Križmančić from LARICS Lab examining localisation and control he developed for the “Is this Life?” project

Max Mahieu from TU Delft describing his involvement in building the hardware part of the robot

Video of the Klisab fashion show collaboration


This complex interactive installation opens up
a set of questions about several topics:

  • Society – for understanding society as an organism and interrelation between human beings

  • AI – to study different manifestations of collective intelligence, as one of the possible types of intelligence, as a subset of artificial intelligence (AI)

  • Interaction – to test and implement different ways of interaction, with an emphasis on indirect means of interaction, where the interaction is not immediately obvious or instantly gratifying, as opposed to what we are normally used to expect from digital technologies

  • Agency – the presence of the audience is crucial for the system, they insert energy into the system and change its behaviour

  • Post-digital materiality – the division between digital and non-digital is blurring, we cannot talk anymore of a clear boundary in our surrounding. We live in a moment when digital technology is so omnipresent and accessible that it is not any more our primary focus itself. The most important aspect of digital technologies becomes the experience that it enables, creating an easier transition between the two.

The title

The title Is this Life? loosely references Erwin Schrödinger’s book What is Life? published in 1944, where he introduces the idea of genetic material as hereditary information that influenced the discovery of DNA in 1952 and was one of the first examples of studying biology through the lens of physics.

In it he defines what an organism is through the role of negentropy and he proposes developing universal formula of life.

Description of the collaboration

Project development can be divided in to 5 basic segments. These are disciplines required for the realisation of the whole project:

  • Software
    High-level control like localisation and coordination/organisation will be developed by LARICS Lab from the University of Zagreb. For the localisation we will use Pozyx system and for the organisation of the robots, we will use a Boid algorithm following Rainold rules. Low-level control will be done by TU Delft and Hochschule Aalten.

    • Electronics 
    • Mechanics
    The electronics and mechanics of the robot are developed in collaboration between the TU Delft and Hochschule Aalten. This includes developing and assembling the circuitry for powering and controlling the robot, building the gearing and the bearing construction. The same applies to the induction wireless charging system that will power the robot.

  • Ceramics
    Developing the mould and casting the porcelain shells for the outer spheres of the robot are done by Quark-centar for ceramics in Rijeka, Croatia, by Professor Dražen Vitolović and Rino Banko.

  • Interaction
    After the prototype faze is finished we will scale up the production to 24 robots and additional 6 robots as redundancy, the total of 30 robots will be built. In this phase we will finetune the organization and control and start working on the interaction with the audience. This will be done in collaboration between the TU Delft and LARICS Lab.

    Delft design labs are part of TU Delft, specialised in human-centered AI and thus being ideal collaborator for this delicate and very much experimental phase of the project. We will try out several ways of interaction based on adaptive behaviour of swarms. All the interactions will be biologically driven, mimicking complex behaviours of self-organisational systems.

The first prototype of the porcelain sphere shell, only 5mm thick. You can see here the mold on the left and the cast on the right.

It not only looks great, it sounds great, which means that it has no cracks in the structure and has been baked properly. The firing of the kiln and the cooling program took 12 hours and the maximal temperature was 1120 C.


The project outlines rich and multifaceted interrelations between different disciplines. Its endeavour is building a true artistic representation of present technological times, pushing the limits of production and dissemination. It has affirmative role as a catalyst for the techno humanistic perspective. It is focused in fully exploring the potentials of placing humans in the centre of technological environments, shaping technology to human scale and experiences.

It generates experiences and knowledge through experimentation, presentation and participation.

Link to Crossing parallels residency project page
The first photo is by Karla Juric / @ninetofivestudio