What if your living situation doesn't allow pets? What if you love plants but have trouble keeping them alive? And if you have plants, I am sure, you would love if your plants could talk back to you?
Yes, Pontus is your plant, with a voice, a companion. Maybe Pontus is thirsty. Maybe it wants more sunlight. Maybe it just wants some of your love and attention? But how does it tell you?
When we interact with a cat or a dog they respond. Even a goldfish will react when you feed it. What if plants could do the same?
In this project we have explored how we can interact with an inanimate but living object. We want to make plants come alive with audio and visual feedback in order to enhance communication with us, so we can take better care of them and also have them play a more active role in our lives.
The plant giving an ambient glow in the dark
The plant giving an ambient glow in the dark
Just by walking the streets of Umeå, a small town in the north of Sweden, you can notice how important the role plants play in homes. Even during the winter when the amount of sunlight is reduced to a couple of hours, you still see in every window at least one plant.
Why do people keep plants in their homes? There could be many explanations for this, varying from individual to individual; but what is certain is that affinity towards plants has existed for thousands of years and humans have developed a special bond towards these mysterious living creatures.
No matter however strong the bond though, some of us still have trouble taking care of them; simply because it requires a sort of special sense or knowledge to understand their needs just by looking at them. Does it need more water or was the water too much? Was there no sunlight? Why did it not survive? These are all questions that many of us have had at one point of time or another and this is precisely what we are trying to address.
Many experiments regarding the relationship between humans and plants have been done. And most of the results have proved that plants have a positive, rather calming effect on people. A research project at the National Chung Hsing University of Taiwan studied how different window views and indoor plants affect people. They found out, through a series of medical examinations, that participant's nervousness and anxiety levels were lower when exposed to natural views and/or indoor plants as compared to when they didn't have these elements when they showed higher degrees of stress. Also in Taiwan, Ke Tsung Hang from the National Chin-Yi University of Technology performed a study with high school students. In one class he placed six plants at the back of the classroom over the course of one semester and a control class. Not only did the group exposed to plants display lesser hours of sick leave and punishments due to misbehaviour but they also reported stronger feelings of presence, comfort and friendliness. This is very important for us because it backs up our belief that people keep plants in their homes not only for aesthetic reasons but also because they evoke positive feelings and a happier state of mind.
It is easier to know what to do with pets. Dogs for example, are a lot more expressive, not only can you see if they are fine by learning a bit about their behaviour but they also make sounds and movements that accompany it. Owners can notice if their dog is sick, perhaps they don't know exactly what the disease is but at least they know something is wrong and they can take it to the veterinarian. They give us many signs regarding their wellbeing that are related to body and sound language, which makes it easier for us to understand. With plants this is not so clear.
This is the aim of Pontus, to enhance feedback from plants in a way that remains natural and simple to comprehend. Pontus is your plant with a voice and expression - an expression that is unique to each plant, a personality; one that you need to understand over time, just like with a child or a pet. The latter do not come with manuals or apps, Pontus doesn't either.
Our research began by looking at existing related products, we mostly found very technical pots or devices that you stick into the soil close to the plant. In both cases, the products were connecting to the user's phone via an app and compiling information to create graphs, analysis and later give advice regarding the plant's care. Further on, we also had to understand plants better and how to take care of them, so we investigated that as well. We wanted to check if plants actually do make noises or sounds. And will you believe, they do; there are several studies showing that researchers have been able to document plant sounds using sensors and electrodes. They have found different responses when they are in pain or thirsty and we used this later on as inspiration to create our own set of sounds.
We brainstormed and sketched out our ideas of what this concept could look like. We wanted this to stay true to the essence of plants. So we decided that we wanted something that reacted only when the person was present; as opposed to receiving notifications about the plant needing water when you can't do anything about it because you are not at home. We also decided we wanted it to seem like the expressions were coming from the plant, so having a separate device (like the ones that are inserted in the soil) could give the impression that the expressions were coming from it and not the plant itself. Therefore, we went for the pot form, because it is so normal to see plants in pots that the pot almost becomes invisible to our eyes and that would keep the user's attention focused on the plant. Just as well, we agreed to keep the alarms quite basic: we mainly focused on the most obvious thing a plant needs - water. However, further on sensors for sunlight or pest infestation could be included in the concept.
Since our intent was also to strengthen the bond between humans and plants, we had to give Pontus a personality and that is why we created a conversational mode as well. It asks for attention if you have not paid attention to it for awhile and reacts when spoken to. Light and sound were the way to do it. So we explored a lot with sound, first we made soundboards that helped us discuss as a group what we wanted it to say and how we wanted it to sound. We recorded our own sounds from very different materials, from big and small pieces of metal to wood, water drops, nylon cords and even real plants. We also downloaded sounds and we mixed and matched, cut, changed the pitch, changed speed, added reverberation, layered them on top of each other, etc. However, we needed to create something people would understand, so we prototyped sound sets and went on the lookout for listeners. We printed and cut out different flash cards with messages and emotions people could choose from to describe what they were listening to when we played our samples. Initially our goal was to create a sound that "sounded like a plant", organic, delicate, natural. However, from our testing we discovered that since plants have never made an audible sound for us to hear, we have no clue what they would sound like. So any sound that we created, would be related to something else that regularly emits a similar sound. Therefore, what we had to focus our attention on was the message the sound was conveying and leave the aesthetics of the sound a bit aside, but not straying away from what was believable for a plant. Regarding the lights, we used them as an aid for the sound message. It is also an indication of where the sound is coming from. We established a basic colour code for each function and a rhythm to accompany the sound.
Form-wise, we established earlier the reasons why we chose to make a pot. We decided to make it discreet and elegant, after exploring many different shapes and sizes, because this would add to the idea of making it almost unnoticeable. Our final shape is composed of two main parts, both hollow. The flower pot, which holds the plant and the soil and also has a drainage system to keep the water from affecting the electronics. The bottom shell, which holds the electronics, lights, speakers and sensors, should also serve as an acoustic box for the sound to resonate and a cavity for the light to be reflected upon.
Every big change has been a small one at some point. If through Pontus we can enable and encourage a stronger bond between one person and his or her plant(s); and therefore, benefit the person with the positive results plants are known to have over humans, then we believe it could be the start of something good. It could be a change that expands, that gets us closer to nature and hopefully that improves our state of mind as a society to better address our everyday lives.
We loved how technology and the organic were married in a way that adds an extra layer of interaction between humans and something seemingly mundane: house plants.
While clearly meant for a consumer context, we wonder if there is potential for such technology to help agriculturists on a broader scale.