Elowan: A plant-robot hybrid

Harpreet Sareen / Elbert Tiao

Elowan Images (Credit: Harpreet Sareen. License: CC-BY 4.0)

Images of Harpreet Sareen (Credit: Harpreet Sareen. License: CC-BY 4.0)

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What are some possible applications of this research, and of the idea of using plants as sensors?
  2. Why use plants as sensors?
  3. Where is this research going?
  1. What are some possible applications of this research, and of the idea of using plants as sensors?

    Plants working as light sensors is exactly what Elowan was designed to convey—Deep integration of technology with our nature. One small capability such as response of plants to light shows how plants could be harnessed for our physical devices or interaction purposes.

    This leads to applications such as sensing a surrounding environment through a plant or tree signals or routing those signals through our interactive devices. The plants could be used as sensing platforms for monitoring their own health, minute changes in the environment or to give rise to new organic interactive devices.

    I think such a process of hybridizing with nature leads us to think about how we design our future devices. The way we have seen environment and sustainability efforts have been much more passive and always about saving while we are the back foot, but if we start looking at capabilities in the environment, we align ourselves with the development, as opposed to being divergent from it. I called this new type of interaction design as convergent design.

  2. Why use plants as sensors?

    When we create interactive devices, there are two primary components: "sensing" in the broadest sense of what the user wants to do, and responding/displaying an output as a feedback. Usually, we create artificial electronics to carry out such functions for us, but plants inherently have such capabilities. They can sense and they can display—they are already an interface.

    What's more, plants are self-powered, self-regenerating, and self-fabricating organisms. In short, plants might be the best kind of "electronics" we have, something we can only strive to get to in the artificial world. Much of our thinking around interfaces/interactive devices has spun up from industrial way of thinking of having to create everything from ground up artificially. But if nature has those capabilities such as of sensing (signals inside plants), response (plant movement, color change, leaves opening/closing, growth, etc.), then why not tap into those capabilities of what nature does best? This I believe can be the future of interaction—where we don't think of interfaces as separate but  within our nature itself. 

    I love this quote from Paul Simons—"If all the ideas of Charles Darwin were accepted, we would look at plants as excitable creatures instead of vegetables as we’re taught at school."

    Elowan is an attempt to show how that's possible and can be carried forward to the future.

  3. Where is this research going?

    The real world is already a sort of Avatar world that we have missed looking at. In my research, I study these micro-capabilities of plants, and start from there to create new interaction or design possibilities.

    Elowan was an attempt to show to the public what it means to power a new capability with a plant. The next in series is connecting the plant with our digital world and creating bi-directional communication between our plants and our devices. Plants for monitoring and plants as printing devices are coming as next immediate outputs [a Cyborg Garden is coming]. Come to think of it, it's almost like inventing new devices, but now enabled by nature.

    I am even expanding the scope of this research through my new initiative. at Parsons School of Design, where I am also currently a Professor of Interaction Design. This new initiative called Synthetic Ecosystems looks at interaction design with nature at large. Often times, I flip the user of my technologies to non-humans. This leads to understanding what design really is and creating products for animals, plants or organisms - something that we never do but questioning why don't we?