Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Microvoltage Fluctuations in Plants

I saw an interesting sensor technology in an artwork that creates a connection between a bird and a plant--and also human onlookers. "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" was a live, bi-directional, interactive, telematic, interspecies sonic installation Eduardo Kac created with Ikuo Nakamura between. In this work, a canary dialogues over a regular phone line with a plant (Philodendron) 600 miles away.

In New York, an electrode was placed on the plant's leaf to sense its microvoltage fluctuation response to the singing of the bird. The of the plant was monitored through a Macintosh running a software called Interactive Brain-Wave Analyzer (IBVA). IBVA is a program designed to detect human mental activity and was employed to inspect the vital activity of an organism generally understood as devoid of consciousness. The information coming from the plant was fed into another Macintosh running MAX, which controlled a MIDI sequencer.

The yellow canary was given a very large and comfortable cylindrical white cage, on top of which circuit-boards, a speaker, and a microphone were located. A clear Plexiglas disc separated the canary from this equipment, which was wired to the phone system. Not surprisingly, people altered their behavior when around the bird and around the plant.

Kac says about this work: "This interactive installation is as much about creating art for non-humans as it is about human isolation and loneliness, and about the very possibility of communication. As this piece projects the complexities of electronically mediated human communication over non-human organisms, it surprisingly reveals aspects of our own communicative experience. This interaction is as dynamic and unpredictable as a human dialogue." [Thanks to]

Now I'm trying to figure out if IBVA is something that could be useful for the Technology Garden. I found IBVA's website and still have no clue as to what it is or what it does and how it does it. Sadly, they have a terrible FAQ that is long rant against the evils of greedy marketing and press people. While I sympathize, they really ought to help out their consumers a little here.

I've also found a patent for a device that does something similar. Alas, I have found no actual product.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Human-Plant-Human Interaction

Lately I've been thinking and talking about what we're doing with the TechGarden in terms of Human-Plant-Human Interaction. Google yields plenty of searchs on people-plant and human-plant interactions but, as Paul Dourish pointed out, Google yields nothing for human plant human interaction. Google says:"Your search - "human plant human interaction" - did not match any documents. " It would probably more accurate to call what we're doing a Human-Plant-Computer-Human Interaction. Well, that yields a terrifically unwieldy acroynym. Maybe it would be good to stick with HPH. Or how about Computer-Human Interaction throughPlants (CHIP)?

The Infotropism project, presented at DIS 2004, is an example of what I'm calling HPH/CHIP. the system uses the properties of phototropism to turn a plant into a living display. Phototropism is directional plant growth in which the direction of growth is determined by the direction of the light source. lights are wired to a recycling bin and a trash bin on either side of the plant. every time something is placed in a bin, the corresponding lamp emits a burst of light. thus, the plant acts as a display of human consumption patterns. [Thanks to ::setbang::].

It's very interesting to think of the plant itself as a display. We weren't necessarily focusing on the notions of plants-as-display, although perhaps we were implicitly: over time, the plants show patterns of human care. The plants in our highly artificial environment will only survive with human care and they will only thrive with persistent human care.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Bren Hall Building Dedication

The new Computer Science Building, Donald Bren Hall, was dedicated yesterday and as part of the dedication there was an open house for the public. Several demonstrations were set up around the building while some projects were represented by posters. Our project had two posters: one in the poster room in the Informatics Department and one in the Technology Garden room.

A couple folks came by to chat in the poster room, but the Room complete with poster in the hall-facing window proved to be the big draw. I'm convinced that if the room had been fully set up that we would have gotten a big crowd. Almost everyone was very enthusiasitic and thought it was a great idea or was at least intrigued by it. There were a couple folks who just could not take the idea seriously, but I suppose that is inevitable.

I did get a chance to get the patter down for the project. Talking to folks did help me to focus on what was new and important about this project, and what could be misunderstood. A couple folks thought that we were designing sensors and others thought we were trying to automate plant care. The latter point was especially interesting, because in some ways what we're doing is antithetical to automated plant care. Instead of trying to remove the human element and reduce the dependency on human interviention we are trying to enhance, and build awareness of, the interactions between plants and people. Hmm. This could be good fodder for the CHI paper!

First Plants!

The Technology Garden has it's first signs of life now. Bonnie and I made a trip to Roger's Gardens in Newport Beach to get some beautiful new plants for the Technology Garden. We got a variety of beautiful succulents as well as a bonsai palm, and some tropical plants. We were really gravitating towards sculptural plants with beautiful colors and are pleased with what we found. We are off to a great start.

We will need more big leafy plants. I will be heading back to the nursery soon to get some ficus benjamina and other proven air-cleaning plants to bolster the effect on the CO2 and Oxygen levels in the room. I'm trying to get up to speed on my plant knowledge.

In other news, we've officially welcomed Bryant Hornick to the team. Bryant and I will be working closely this summer to design and develop some of the collaborative plant care applications while most of the other folks on the project are out of town. We will also be working to keep the plants happy until the user study gets into full swing--at which time the users will be largely responsible (or not) for keeping the plants happy.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Introducing the Technology Garden

We are in the early stages of conceptual design for a new project: The Technology Garden. The Technology Garden will be a community maintained garden located in an office that will be equipped with sensors and ubiquitous displays mounted throughout the workplace.

The Technology Garden will support dialog and thinking about how humans and plants relate to each other. By involving our institution in the care and observation of a community garden located in an office, we will also explore what role institutions may play in supporting sustainable activities and thinking. We wish to facilitate new forms of awareness and interaction amont humans and nature through and with technology. Our goal is not only to bring nature into a working space, but also to establish new forms of understanding of nature/organic planting, of what it meanst to take care of a plant and how that can be explored in a collaborative manner. We will explore how to transform a working environment into a hybrid living space that values not only group collaboration and efficient technology, but also provides an enjoyable place that invites relaxation and promotes health.

  • Encourage interaction between humans and nature.
  • Promote awareness of the interaction of natural and human processes.
  • Explore how technology can encourage relationship building through common activities.
  • Encourage dialog on sustainability and sustainable practices.
  • Provide a “place with a purpose to meet and relax” for both visitors and residents.
  • Create a form of sociality that extends beyond the immediate space of an office or a hallway through visualizations that support garden awareness.
Design Concept

Community gardens are often run by non-profits that lend small plots of land to individuals. The location and limited space of office 5054 would prohibit the creation and allotment of garden plots, however the allotment of pots and potting soil is quite feasible.

The Technology garden will serve as a communal lounge or break room thus providing benefits and enjoyment to all Informatics members and visitors, not just to those who are actually participating in plant growing. Faculty, students and visitors can each plant their own individual plant, collaboratively taking care of and planting an organic garden.

The room will be equipped with seed packets and canisters containing soil. Each seed packet is equipped with an RFID tag. When brought in proximity to an RFID reader information about how to plant the specific seed will be viewed on a display.

The Technology Garden will always be there during work hours and will have the added benefit of allowing community members to check on the status of not only their own, but the plants of others online.

We would also like to incorporate a fountain and Ecosphere art to continue the theme of the mediation of human experience through technology and nature.

Sensor Usage

Using CO2 sensors (and possibly also oxygen sensors), we can show how CO2 goes up from respiration when people enter and remain in the space, but goes down as plants inspire CO2 from the air and fix it in sugars for their growth. Additionally we can use Oxygen (O) sensors to show how oxygen levels change over time. Once we understand how to set up the demonstration cost effectively, it could be a model for classrooms and museums. The goal of the demonstration is to reveal the close relationship between people and plants.

Soil moisture sensors will allow measurement of the level of dryness of each plant and the garden as a whole. These sensors will allow visual feedback to gardeners and the greater community to the status of the individual plants and the garden as a whole.

Supporting Awareness and Collaboration

While the garden remains in the room, the activity of growing and caring for plants expands into the whole building. A web cam captures people planting the seeds and taking care of their growing plants. Pictures randomly taken by the web cam will be sent to small Play Station Portable (PSP) screens that are distributed throughout UC Irvine’s Donald Bren Hall.

Visual representations of individual plants and the garden as a whole will enable easy monitoring of plants and the whole garden. Visualizations will be accessible both in the Technology Garden and remotely.

A blog will help community members and other interested parties keep up-to-date with regard to relevant news (e.g., changes in the environment or regulations) or to share helpful tips.