Forget Wireless Keyboards and Touch Your Plant Instead
By Katie Pratt on August 8th, 2012
A collaborative project funded primarily by Disney Research Pittsburg (I had no idea that existed either) has developed a technology that allows you to do stuff with a computer by feeling up a potted plant. An electrode is inserted into the soil and hooked up to your CPU. Then, when you touch the plant, a signal is sent to the computer and does…well…stuff.
The scientists used machine assisted learning to teach the computer program how to understand the plant. So, for example, stroking the stem of an orchid might play a high-pitched sound or produce a red color, whereas tousling a gardenia would generate a low-pitched growl and a green glow. Alternatively, you could teach your plant to do something useful, like change the TV channel or schedule a meeting. The possibilities are endless.
But why use plants in this way? From reading the small amounts of materials that accompany the Botanicus Interacticus website, it would seem that the inventors don’t appreciate the way we currently interact with the technological world, by using touchscreens, for example, and would rather we get back in touch with nature. Indeed the emphasis of the project appears to be on the creative, with the exhibit demonstrated in this video centered on musical and colored outputs.
Perhaps the most exciting part about this is the use of different plants to generate different outputs. However, I was mildly disturbed to read “Engaging with more painful plants, such as cactuses, would provide far more rewarding experiences” (ref). I would have thought a more pleasant application would be to use scented herbs, so that in touching the plants you also generated a nice smell. Silly me.
So perhaps in the future those plants on your desk will be more than just decoration, and the fichus in the corner of your bedroom will act as your burglar alarm. Whatever the outcome, I for one will not be attaching a cactus to my alarm clock.
Katie Pratt is a postdoc in Molecular Biology at Brown University. She has a passion for science communication, and in an attempt to bring hardcore biology and medicine to everyone, she blogs jargon-free at www.katiephd.com. Follow her escapades in the lab and online on Twitter.
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