A monthlong summer exhibit at the University of Colorado Boulder Art Museum will feature a dynamic new media composition based on innovative robotics technology.

Called “Swarm Wall,” the large-scale interactive piece displays changing fields of color, light and sound that are driven by a distributed form of artificial intelligence.

Nikolaus Correll of the CU-Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science, foreground; Ken Sugawara, a visiting professor from Tohuku Gakuin University in Japan; left, and Michael Theodore of the CU-Boulder College of Music, pose next to their interactive art exhibit, titled “Swarm Wall,” which was under construction at the time the photo was taken. The large-scale interactive piece displays changing fields of color, light and sound that are driven by a distributed form of artificial intelligence. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

As many as 70 intelligent “nodes” behind the piece create a swarming effect when they detect movement and communicate it with one another. The nodes exhibit swarm behavior because each performs actions solely based on its own plan and the actions of its immediate neighbors.

The 42-by-12-foot installation is the first product from a new art and technology research group on campus. The group was launched by faculty members Michael Theodore of the College of Music, who received a $44,000 grant from CU’s Innovative Seed Grant Program last year to support the collaboration, and Nikolaus Correll of the computer science department.

Also involved in the Swarm Wall is Ken Sugawara, a visiting computer science professor from Tohuku Gakuin University in Japan who is an expert in animal flocking behavior, the inspiration behind the patterns the wall displays.

The seed grant, which Correll and Theodore say already has helped them attract additional funding, was the first step toward establishing an active lab where students, faculty and professional researchers from various disciplines collaborate on cutting-edge applications of artificial intelligence.

“We’re now calling it the ‘if’ lab because we want to see what happens if artists put engineers in front of tough problems,” said Correll, who is providing space for the growing group within his own robotics laboratory in the Engineering Center at CU-Boulder.

“We want to assemble some basic, inexpensive tools that students can use to explore and to develop new applications of robotics,” Correll said.

Scattered around the lab last week were a collection of small custom circuit boards, electronic panels, items resembling ping pong balls and various other components that are being used to assemble robotic devices.

An assembly of circuit boards connected with bright orange cables also was mounted on a partition in the lab in preparation for the installation of Swarm Wall.  Small mechanical arms or flippers waved back and forth as the “brains” behind the Swarm Wall were tested. Sometimes the movement was synchronized, while other times a ripple effect would occur in response to some stimuli.

“Artistic exploration can help computer scientists and engineers to ask questions they wouldn’t have otherwise asked,” said Theodore, who also serves as director of the ATLAS Center for Media, Arts and Performance.

“The difference between arts and science is very diffuse; both want to discover new things,” Theodore said. “The cool thing about art is that we can explore systems that are not of interest to classical funding agencies, but might be so after maturing in a lab like the ‘if’ lab.”

Swarm Wall is one of four pieces in “Michael Theodore: Field Theory,” an exhibition of kinetic sculpture, sound, lighting and works on paper, running June 15 through July 14 at the CU Art Museum. The exhibition is free and open to the public. An opening reception will be held on June 15, from 6 to 8 p.m. For additional information, visitors may call the CU Art Museum at 303-492-8300 or go to

Michael Theodore, 303-492-7721
Nikolaus Correll, 303-492-2233
Carol Rowe, 303-492-7426


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