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Swissnex at SXSW Drones invade arts, performance, and hearts

Drone swarm at SXSW 2018 in Austin, Texas

Advances in drone development are pushing not only the limits of technology, but also of art, as demonstrated at a SXSW panel this week in Austin, Texas.

(Verity Studios/Nick Karlin)

In this instalment of our opinion series, swissnex Boston Communications Manager Jake Link describes how a swarm of synchronised drones captured his imagination – and his heart – and raised his hopes for a technology that often inspires public uneasiness.

point of view

point of view

The idea of a drone future, filled with omnipresent robots and buzzing skies, often feels heavy and foreboding. Much of the discussion around the drone-ification of our major industries focuses on issues like privacy, security, trust, and safety. While this new drone era is bringing rapid innovation to nearly every sector, it also brings a general sense of skepticism and concern. This apprehension is certainly something I’ve thought a lot about and discussed heavily with friends and colleagues over the past couple of years, and we all seem to share an optimistic, but slightly nervous sentiment.

The explosion in drone technology prompted a new yearlong event series from swissnex Bostonexternal link called “Aerial Futures: The Drone Frontier” – a name that elicits an optimism that many have trouble connecting with. As a part of the swissnex Boston team, I was excited for the series to begin and to explore how we address the public uneasiness around drones.

About the author

Jake Link is an art and tech enthusiast based out of Boston and New York City. He serves as Senior Communications Manager of swissnex Boston, where he promotes innovative partnerships between Switzerland and North America.

(Jake Link)

The series officially launched this week at the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) conference and festival event in Austin, Texas with a panelexternal link on drone swarms in art, and I can honestly say that I was left filled with pure excitement and inspiration. It sounds a little silly, but I wasn’t the only one in the packed crowd that developed a special sort of affection for these mesmerizing little machines today. There was a tangible and shared sense of wonder in the room that I would compare to a crowd of children seeing Disney World for the first time. There wasn’t a trace of nerves or apprehension.

Zurich tech

On the stage sat Léa Pereyre, a drone costume designer (the only one in the world – for now) and Bill Keays, Creative Production Director, both from Verity Studiosexternal link. The Zurich-based company is rapidly pioneering not only the technical development of drone swarms, but also their applications in art and performance.

For many of us in the audience, this was the first time we had witnessed the possibilities of drones – not just from a technical perspective (which is still, of course, very impressive), but in terms of aesthetic appeal and storytelling.

I never thought I’d see a swarm of drones as something beautiful, but there I sat as Léa and Bill left the crowd unanimously in awe. When they began showing video demonstrations of their work, the crowd shouted, almost in unison, asking the venue managers to “turn off the lights!” It was as if they couldn’t believe their eyes and needed maximum clarity on the screen to comprehend what they were witnessing. That might sound like an exaggeration, but I assure you that if you explore some of Verity’s work by watching their reelexternal link, you might have the same reaction.

drone frontier tweet

Tweet from swissnex Boston about new drone initiative

Just the beginning

Later that day, I walked the streets of Austin with a group of my colleagues, including Léa and Bill, observing tech demos and exploring some of the hundreds of parties happening at the conference. I tried to manage my excitement as I chatted them up about their work and the sort of epiphany that their panel had elicited from the crowd. I was delighted to see that they shared my sense of wonder about the work, even though it’s what they do every day.

When I spoke about the possibilities and the affection the drones generated from the audience, I could tell it was a feeling they were quite familiar with and must have experienced time and time again as their work developed. As Bill said in his panel, “When it comes to drones in art, we are just getting started. We really are in the stone age of drone shows.”

sxsw tweet

Tweet from swissnex Boston about SXSW drone panel

You can tell he really means that and sees so much possibility beyond what was demonstrated at this year’s SXSW. Léa similarly is many steps ahead of what most can imagine and pushes this new artform forward from an artistic perspective. At Verity, it seems that the art pushes the limits of the technology, then the technology challenges the possibilities of the art, and so on, creating an environment of rapid innovation and creative flow.

Later that evening, I couldn’t help but ask to visit Verity the next time I’m in Zurich. I’ve had the privilege of seeing some truly incredible technology and art projects here at SXSW and through my work with swissnex Boston, and even amid all of this boundary-pushing tech, it’s these humming, glowing, dancing little machines (which I have to keep reminding myself not to call “creatures”) that stand out above the rest in my mind, and perhaps even more significantly, in my heart.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch. 

Opinion series

swissinfo.ch publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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Aerial Futures: the Drone Frontier

Aerial Futures: the Drone Frontierexternal link is an ongoing event series created and curated by swissnex Boston, aimed at exploring the changes to policy and society that accompany the growing adoption and implementation of professional drone technology. swissinfo.ch’s Innovation dossierexternal link contains stories published on events and topics corresponding to the Aerial Futures series, in collaboration with swissnex Boston. You can follow the series on social media using the #DroneFrontier external linkhashtag.

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