UC San Diego News Center


Selfies Reach New Heights with Wearable Drone

“Selfie” was word of the year in 2013. Could “Nixie” be next? Maybe not right away, because Nixie—a wrist-mounted drone designed to fly and take an aerial action-shot photo or video of its owner before coming back—only just won Intel’s inaugural “Make It Wearable Challenge” this month. It has yet to be fully developed and brought to market. But take a look at the enthusiastic comments on Nixie’s YouTube video, and its 3.5 million views and counting, and it certainly seems possible that someday soon “Nixie” will enter everyone’s vocabulary.

Jelena Jovanovic


Nixie was prototyped by a team that includes Jelena Jovanovic, who received a master’s degree from UC San Diego’s department of cognitive science in 2007.

Nixie has a tiny camera inside a small quadcopter, or a helicopter-style drone that is lifted and propelled by four rotors. It’s designed as a flexible bracelet weighing less than a tenth of a pound, whose propellers sit neatly folded up atop its owner’s wrist. A gesture sends it off to capture a memorable moment of the owner and then return. It has a “boomerang” mode, where it is meant to fly to a fixed distance and come back right away, a “panorama” mode for 360-degree arcs, as well as “hover” and “follow-me” modes.

The high-quality images created can instantly be shared, by syncing with the user's cell phone. They will also offer a perspective beyond what’s currently possible with existing personal devices.

Nixie Wristband


“Set your camera free,” reads the future product’s tagline, “set yourself free.” The development team believes Nixie could be a game-changer, going far beyond “selfie” and redefining photography—because it will allow the owner to capture a moment organically as it happens, without interruption and without posing the scene, the action and the owner.

Jovanovic—who has been working as an engineering project manager at Google for the past seven years and was also part of a team that developed a successful open-source underwater robot called OpenROV—is sure there is demand for the device. She and Nixie inventor/CEO Christoph Kohstall, a physicist and postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, both own quadcopters and have been playing around with them for a while. They and their fellow quad enthusiasts noticed this: It takes a lot of attention and effort to operate a regular camera-equipped drone.

“It doesn't allow you to use it organically,” Jovanovic said. “Most quadcopters are either really bulky, really hard to operate, or both. That makes it hard to spontaneously take a photo or video of yourself while actively doing anything else.”

Nixie Takesoff


Nixie is not only more portable, Jovanovic said. It is also meant to make the experience an extension of natural behavior. “We’re trying to make Nixie super-magical and gesture-based, so it is as simple as pointing to a friend ‘take a picture from there.’”

Nixie employs core principles Jovanovic was exposed to as a graduate student in UC San Diego’s cognitive science department: the importance of human factors, for example, and user-centered design, she said.

The UC San Diego department of cognitive science, the first of its kind in the world, combines the study of the brain, behavior and computation. And it was here that Jovanovic said she learned to approach a problem both scientifically and from multiple angles. “Cognitive science teaches you to think in multidisciplinary ways,” she said. “Bringing a product to market is nothing if not multidisciplinary.”

The Nixie team is targeting adventure athletes first—think rock climbers and mountain bikers—an initial market similar to the first one for GoPro (the wildly successful mountable camera developed by UC San Diego visual arts alum Nick Woodman). Eventually the target will be everyone.

They estimate Nixie’s initial pricing at a bit more than a GoPro. “But long term, we want to make Nixie the next point and shoot camera, and at those production volumes, we can match point and shoot camera prices,” Jovanovic said.

When will the Nixie be available? The answer to that is just as soon as possible. And if the team’s recent experience is any guide, that day may not be far off.

Kohstall first approached Jovanovic with the idea for a wearable quadcopter camera only a day or two before learning of the Intel competition, Jovanovic said. And that was a mere six days before the deadline to enter.

Nixie Workshop


In six days, she said, he built the first prototype in time to enter and then “we hacked together a team from friends, family and Craigslist.” Now, just four months later, the team of visionary tinkerers has taken the grand prize of $500,000 in Intel’s first “Make It Wearable Challenge,” and is well on its way to making the innovative product a reality.

They have patents pending on Nixie’s form-factor strap that wraps around one’s wrist; on the user experience, or the gesture control; and on some of the physics and algorithms underlying the product, too.

Nixie currently finds and returns to its owner thanks to an inertial navigation system. It could do this “blind,” but the team is also experimenting with building in to the device the capacity for object or facial recognition.

In its market form, Nixie may also look different than the prototype seen during the Intel competition. “We are still testing in the field,” Jovanovic said, “still experimenting and talking with people. We’re still iterating.” These concepts are also integral to the cognitive science department at UC San Diego, Jovanovic said, as is the “simple but profound idea that optimal design is intuitive to use.”

To stay up to date with Nixie’s development: