Merging plants with our digital electronics to create a radical new interface might sound like the premise of a Black Mirror episode, but it's exactly what researchers at MIT Media Lab's Fluid Interfaces Group are exploring.
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Harpreet Sareen and Pattie Maes started their research with Elowan, a plant-robot that responds to light. Silver electrodes were attached to the plant's leaves, where they could pick up the electrical signals within the plant that react to the presence of light and route them to a robotic stand underneath. When light sources were placed near the plant, those signals would trigger the wheels to autonomously move in the direction of the light source.
"Plants are normally thought of as passive creatures in the environment," Sareen explains. "Contrary to this, they can not only sense what's happening around them but respond and display naturally. Through cyborg botany, we power some of our digital functions with the natural abilities of plants."
Previously, Sareen has cited this merging as "the future of interaction—where we don't think of interfaces as separate but within nature itself." This would open up a radical new approach in sharp contrast to the sensorial overload of our screens.
"Our interaction and communication channels with plant organisms in nature are subtle—whether it be looking at their color, orientation, moisture, the position of their flowers, leaves and such," he notes. "This subtlety stands in contrast to our interactions with artificial electronic devices that are centered in and around the screens, requiring our full attention and inducing cognitive load. We envision bringing such interactions out from the screens and back into the natural world around us."
The team recently released two new projects, titled Phytoactuators and Planta Digitalis, which explore this concept further. In Phytoactuators, the team connected electrodes to a Venus Flytrap, allowing it to receive signals. In an accompanying app, users see a live stream of the plant and when they click its leaves on the screen, it triggers the plant to act in real life. For Planta Digitalis, the researchers "grew" a conductive "wire" inside the plant so it could essentially function like an antenna or a sensor.
These experiments led the researchers to possible future applications that include sending notifications—the plant might jiggle to alert you when your package is delivered, for instance—or as a motion sensor, which could help you keep track of your pet or be applied to security systems.
For Sareen and Maes, electronic and biological systems have remained separate only because we haven't found an effective bridge between them—and that's where their innovations come in. "Plants are living creatures that are self-powered, self-repairing and self-fabricating—close to the science fiction electronics that we would ideally aim for. Using nature as part of our design process and ushering into this new course of interaction design can potentially be a key to ubiquitous sustainable interactions."