A student artist at MIT is exploring "digital synesthesia" using a flying jellyfish. Alan Kwan created a synesthesia-like experience by flipping the audience’s perception and giving a typically inanimate object a life of its own: He would make umbrellas behave like jellyfish.

It is part of the Digital Synesthesia Research Project (DSRP), an artistic research area which focuses on the possibilities of digital art to create translational and cross-modal sensory experiences. “I wanted to push the envelope of coordinating drones in the sky,” says Kwan.

In order to get the desired effect, he wanted his drones to act almost alive. Kwan was trying to avoid having his creation look like something controlled by an algorithm. With his new jellyfish project, Kwan encountered some technical setbacks due to umbrellas not being particularly aerodynamic.

Image source: Alan Kwan


The drones Kwan wanted to use concentrated all their mass in the center of the flying body. However, the umbrella's shaft was off-center, thus throwing off the umbrella's balance. Instead, he and his classmate, Bjorn Sparrman, built their own drone using custom carbon fiber and metal components.

Finally, with a bit of tweaking, the umbrella jellyfish flew the open skies. The rotors changed the air pressure above and below the umbrella. It pulled the umbrella open and shut, just slightly, which created a rippling jellyfish effect. Synchronized to music, the flying umbrella jellyfish achieves the artist’s goal of using technology to visually transform a mechanical object into a living—and flying—creature from the sea.

Interestingly, according to the new FAA regulations, Kwan is free to exhibit his flying spectacle in the U.S. as long as the drones remain within his line of sight and obey a 400-foot ceiling, a 100-mile-per-hour speed limit, and a 55-pound weight maximum.

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