Recently, students from Keio University's Graduate School of Media Design transformed a garden of greenery into a multi-player musical instruments. Primarily a party game, the Sound Garden is an interesting non-formal interface that connects technology and nature for participants. It is delightful in its seeming simplicity, easily engaging up to 12 people inviting collaboration on an impromptu musical jam session.
The brief was straight-forward: create an entertaining social interaction for participants of TEDxTokyo. As Jack Shaw, project manager and Masters Student at Keio shared, "It was important to meet their need of a social entertainment experience for the breaks between speakers, and to get far away from any notion of a sterile traditional conference environment."
Using an Adobe Flash demo and a paper mockup with colored circles standing in for living plants, the team built their first 'dirty' prototype. If a user touched a color circle, the tester would initiate a looped sound until the same circle was touched again. Two or more users would work together, turning on and off sounds to create a musical composition.
They then began working on a series of prototypes using living plants and Arduino to attach the game's functions to living plants. Working with programmer Yuki Anai, Shaw explained the innerworkings of Sound Gardening:
[We used] a type of motion sensor called an accelerometer attached to certain plants, allowing the interface to know when the plant has been touched and thus triggering that plant's unique sound profile. Multi-colored LEDs were also attached to the plants and programed to get brighter as the sensor is triggered. This served to help guide users to the sensors' locations. We hid speakers near the sensors to give the impression that that the sounds are coming from the individual plants.
Once the interactions were worked out, Shaw worked with Sound Designer Pan Yupeng to record and refine the complex musical compositions—opposed to traditional musical composition, where the length and arrangement are predetermined, Sound Gardening's unique multi-user interface allows sound profiles to be started and stopped continuously and at random.
Because the installation's hardware is completely hidden in the plants the team saw the need to draw users to the interface, and indicate that this wasn't just a floral arrangement. They opted to give some of the plants voices; when the plants are inactive for 30 secs they whisper to beckon new users over. Yupeng tells Core77, "The hardest part was getting the plants to sing. We wanted to incorporate vocals into the composition, but we knew we had to find just the right voices for the plants. We started by recording around 10 singers before ending up with two vocalists."
Conference-goers engaged with the project, the designers saw, "a lot of smiling faces." As Professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki of Chiba University explained in his TEDx Talk, interacting with nature lowers the body's stress levels and increases our relaxation hormones. We wonder how the interactive plants of the near future might be able to contribute to our overall well-being.