MIT MediaLab Develops Cyborg Botany
Tom Spendlove posted on June 06, 2019 |

Harpreet Sareen says that our interactions with plants are subtle. Visual cues taken from a plant’s color, orientation, moisture, or overall health can be completely different from the way we interface with electronics. Sareen and his team at the MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces group developed a Cyborg Botany project to “merge and power our electronic functionalities with existing biological functions of living plans.”

The project so far has focused on Phytoactuators as output devices and Planta Digitalis for inputs. Phytoactuators required researching the ionic imbalances in a plant and attaching silver electrode wires to the interfaces. The venus flytrap shown in the video is an application built in openFrameworks and C++ that lets the user click on a computer screen’s flytrap leaf to trigger the physical plant’s closing. It’s also pointed out that the flytrap closing is a circuital process but the re-opening is a natural chemical process and not part of the experiment.

The Planta Digitalis uses plants as inputs, with antennas and motion sensors demonstrated in the video. One example shows a cat running past a houseplant and an alert popping up to show that motion was detected, another shows people tapping at plants to give a long distance hello to a connected plant. Sareen presented the team’s paper Cyborg Botany: Augmented Plants as Sensors, Displays, and Actuators at the May 2019 ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

It’s inspiring to see engineers working to develop bonds between humans and nature, especially since most of the engineering projects I can think of involving plants and trees focus on their removal. Like many MIT Media Lab projects, Cyborg Botany gives a short explanation of the tech, a few examples of how they’ve implemented it into end uses, and then allows the reader to take it and run with new applications. Envisioning a future where our homes are full of soft smart plants that feel like cohabitants instead of electronic beeping screens is a nice thought.

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