Cyborg Botany: Augmented plants as sensors, displays, and actuators

Harpreet Sareen 

Plants can sense the environment, other living entities and regenerate, actuate or grow in response. Our interaction and communication channels with plant organisms in nature are subtle - whether it be looking at their color, orientation, moisture, position of flowers, leaves and such. This subtlety stands in contrast to our interactions with artificial electronic devices that are centered in and around the screens, requiring full attention and induce cognitive load.  We envision bringing such interaction out from the screens back into natural world around us. 

Beyond external indicators, plants also have electrochemical signals and response mechanisms inside them that make them very similar to our electronic devices. To tap into such capacities already built in nature, we propose a new convergent view of interaction design. Our goal is to merge and power our electronic functionalities with existing biological functions of living plants. Through Cyborg Botany, we re-appropriate some of these natural capabilities of plants for our interactive functions. 

The following two case studies demonstrate our vision of 'bi-directional' interaction using living plant systems.

1. Phytoactuators: Plant actuation triggered through a software interface

It has largely been considered that plants are immobile living organisms always stationary in their habitats or gardens. However, plants do exhibit movements ranging from from circumnutation in seedlings, sleep or circadian rhythm actions, tropic responses to movements of climbing plants. In this particular example, we use 'Venus Flytrap' and 'Mimosa Pudica' plants and trigger their actuation mechanisms by clicking in a software. 

Ag Electrodes (0.999 Silver Wire, 30 AWG) were prepared and attached to the parts of the plants where ionic imbalances are usually observed. For a Venus Flytrap, this is the mid-rib and mid-leaf. On a Mimosa plant, this is usually the top and bottom of petiole or the part joining the primary stem.

An openFrameworks/C++ application (above left) was developed with known position of electrodes and a live camera view (above right) of the plants. When a user clicks on an electrode location, the corresponding electrodes are stimulated triggering the leaf movement in plants. Note: While closing leaves is an electrochemical process triggered through a circuit, opening of leaves is a chemical process happening naturally. 

2. Planta Digitalis: Plants as Antennas, Motion Sensors and more

We adapted the approach by Eleni at al [1]  to grow conductive wires inside plants. We use microelectrodes to establish contact with these wires; subsequently connecting the electrodes to tuned SMA connectors/shielded wires. These are further connected to a high sampling speed network analyzer. The in-vivo wires along with the frequency sweep help engineer antenna-like electromagnetic properties in plants, as seen in the figure below. The interference patterns or coupling with EM waves can thus be used for broader applications in the future. 

The electronic and biological systems have remained divergent for lack of efficient bridging methods. Similar to architects adopting nature into their practice for green architecture, the emergence of bio-digital real time interaction with nature is not far off. 

While industrial revolution taught us full control over synthetic materials and silicon-based fabrication, the inspiration of our today's artificial devices comes largely from our natural world. More specifically, 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.

Future Concepts:

Project Members:
Harpreet Sareen, Pattie Maes

Credits: Jiefu Zheng (Concept Videos, Animation, Editing)

[1] Stavrinidou, E., Gabrielsson, R., Gomez, E., Crispin, X., Nilsson, O., Simon, D. T., & Berggren, M. (2015). Electronic plants. Science advances1(10), e1501136.