It almost seems like magic, something straight from the pages of Harry Potter — tiny lights taking the shape of Mona Lisa or quickly shifting to say, "Eat at Joe's." But it's not magic. These shifting canvases are darn near reality. The folks at Massachusettes Institute of Technology's SENSEable City Laboratory have developed tiny, illuminated helicopters that swarm around to spell words, create shapes or send messages. Working in partnership with Aerospace Robotics and Embedded Systems Laboratory, the researchers have installed multi-colored LEDs on the flying copters and synchronized their movements.

Naming the project FlyFire, SENSEable City imagines these "smart pixels" could give way to images that fly from your computer screen, according to a press release, and "create an immersive, luminous cloud capable of displaying digital information in three-dimensional space." The researchers can currently remotely control a handful of the helicopters and are working toward a public unveiling of 3-D displays involving thousands of these tiny toys.

According to an article in Wired, the project is still largely theoretical. Lead researcher E. Roon Kang feels certain they will continue to develop the technology to reliably control each of the tiny helicopters en masse. Wired discusses the challenges of this many devices hovering, maintaining co-ordinates with accuracy over a period of time.

For now, the FlyFire video is a simulation of the team's vision of their public unveiling, involving pixels that can "recharge every few minutes and then perform in space."

A shiny new way to send a message
SENSEable City Lab develops self-organizing micro helicopters.