Control Computers With Plants? Disney Magic Makes It Happen

Will you control your computer in the future by touching a plant?

What if anything — a surface, a plant, or even parts of your own body — could become a touch interface that controls a computer? That’s what the Disney Human-Computer Interaction Research Team has been trying to make into a reality for the last few years. The group has been working out unique ways to interact with objects, whether developing circuits to provide tactile feedback or broadening the kinds of experiences that touch interactions can make possible.

At this year’s SIGGRAPH, the 39th International Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, the group unveiled their recent project named ‘Botanicus Interacticus‘, which allows touch and gesture control using plants. This noninvasive fusion of living plants and computers is more than just a novelty, as it opens the door to a much richer interactivity with physical environments that could incorporate music and art in new creative experiences.

Watch the demo video to see how ‘Disney magic’ can transform plants into new interactive devices:

Noting the “increasingly tactile and gestural nature of our interactions with  digital devices,” the project asks a simple question: “What if…a broad variety of objects in living, social and working spaces become aware and responsive to human presence, touch and gesture?” Ivan Poupyrev, the Senior Research Scientist at Disney, told Fast Company that he decided to turn the plants into a sensor because he thought “it should be as far away from a man-made object as possible…I thought a plant would be more surprising. It was, as a matter of fact.”

Though it may seem like you’d need to genetically alter plants to make them gesture sensitive, use motion-sensing cameras, or embed each plant with an Arduino board, the hardware is much simpler: an wire placed in the soil. The software uses machine-learning techniques to map the gestures to certain commands. Interestingly, the developers note that “for each type of plant certain gestures are more natural then  others, e.g.  an orchid invites users to slide fingers along it’s stem, while a gardenia suggests unstructured, playful interaction.”

In nature, plants rarely demonstrate observable responses to human interactions, with a notable exception being the Mimosa pudica whose leaves fold when touched. That the group’s minimally-intrusive method could extend the interactions that people can have with plants promises a world of possibilities.

At the conference, the Disney group set up an exhibit to show how this gesture detection could be used to create interactive animations as well as responsive environments and interfaces. This short video shows the potential theremin-like interactivity that’s made possible:

Botanicus Interacticus is an extension of the Touché project, which uses the swept frequency capacitive sensing technique that Disney Research announced last May. Disney has also been experimenting with artificial tactile technology that provides users dynamic sensory information with almost any surface or object. This latest project demonstrates that developers are only scratching the surface of what touch interfaces are going to be like in the coming years.

Whether the thought of imbuing a plant with touch sensitivity sounds trivial, morally mirky, or the stuff of nightmares, it’s a pretty cool and simple execution that could make for incredibly creative applications.

[Sources: Disney Research, Fast Company]

David J. Hill
David J. Hill
David started writing for Singularity Hub in 2011 and served as editor-in-chief of the site from 2014 to 2017 and SU vice president of faculty, content, and curriculum from 2017 to 2019. His interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but he'll always be a chemist at heart.
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