Sunday, November 29, 2015   

Water me now!

Jill Rosen

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Until recently, my plant and I didn't have much to say to one another. I didn't talk to the vegetation and it, most certainly, didn't talk to me. But now my little croton has let me in - informing me, delighting me, even pestering me with frequent updates on her health, happiness and general well-being.

Maybe it's got something to do with sitting next to a computer all these years, but the plant is reaching me online, with short, sweet messages sent through the cutting-edge social network Twitter.

"Water me, please," she asked me one week. Hurrying home to enjoy the weekend, I didn't check my messages. Over the weekend, she tried again: "URGENT!" she yelped. "Water me!"

Alas, no love from me until Monday morning when I finally noticed the desperate cries for attention. Feeling awful, I hurried over with a big cup of water. As I poured it slowly into the pot, the parched soil sucked up every drop. By the time I got back to my keyboard, she had sent another message: "Thank you for watering me!"

The technology that enables humans and houseplants to communicate comes from a company called Botanicalls, which sells US$99 (HK$772.20) kits for that purpose.

It's not only a nifty gadget. Botanicalls, some say, is indicative of the next wave in commercial technology, devices that allow us to interact with our homes, our pets, our possessions.

"I see all technology going in this direction," says Shawn Van Every, who teaches a course at New York University called Redial, which explores new ways to use the telephone.

He sees vast mass market potential for the idea - in the toy industry, where a plaything could exist in both the real and virtual worlds, or in mobile phones, where people could call home to check on their refrigerator or their dog.

Botanicalls is the brainchild of three students in NYU's interactive telecommunications program, a two- year graduate program in the school's arts department.

The idea hatched when some of the students were sitting around in their New York office, wistfully missing nature. Someone mentioned getting some plants. Someone else pointed out that no one would remember to water them and they would die. "Eventually, we came to the idea of what if a plant could just make us a telephone call?" remembers Kate Hartman, one of Botanicalls' three partners.The first generation of the technology used the telephone. The creators rigged a moisture sensor to stick a plant's soil to sense how wet the dirt is and then pass that information to a microchip. The chip, in turn, sent the information through the internet to a phone. The phone would ring, a person would answer and "the plant," in its own individual voice - complete with accents - would have a few words to say about its condition.

Recently, as part of the Conflux Festival in New York, Botanicalls sponsored a telephone walking tour of the plants surrounding the conference center where the festival was held. People called a phone line to hear plants and trees talk about themselves.

As accessible as they seem, the kits aren't for everyone. They require soldering, for instance, and the ability to program if, say, you want to expand your plant's vocabulary. Still, the company has sold a few dozen kits and gotten interest from publications that cater to techies and do-it-yourselfers. Hartman guesses the perfect audience is either a do-it-yourself, crafty sort who's into gardening or an avid techie with a black thumb.

Another thing Botanticalls illustrates is people's growing comfort with technology. The hardware on the device, a leaf-shaped computer circuit board, is exposed for a reason - the company wants people to play with it and personalize it.

One buyer used his kit on a plant he bought at Ikea, says Rob Faludi, one of the company's founders, who's now an instructor at NYU. The man customized it so that the plant "spoke" to him in Swedish.

Faludi says there's almost a movement afoot to make technology more accessible. "It's kind of a reaction to technology companies gluing things shut," he says. "But the DIY movement is an attempt to take control of technology, to say: 'Hey, it's okay to crack open your remote control, your television, your VCR.'"


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