If you touch one of Disney Research’s living Botanicus Interacticus plants, you might be surprised to hear musical notes or see images that correspond with your movement. This is not usually what one expects when interacting with a plant, yet these plants are very much alive and plant-like.
The interactive plants’ creators, Disney’s Human-Computer Interaction Research Team, have used the same underlying technology to turn everything from doorknobs to the human body into interactive objects. But something about plants makes the technology a bit more magical.
“I thought it should be as far away from a man-made object as possible,” says Disney Senior Research Scientist Ivan Poupyrev about the decision to turn real plants into sensors. “They expect that. … I thought a plant would be more surprising. It was, as a matter of fact.”
Botanicus Interacticus is based on a technology called Touche that Poupyrev and his team has been working on since 2010.
Most touch technology is binary. It can determine whether or not you’re touching something. Touche, on the other hand, distinguishes between a one-finger touch, a pinch, a circle gesture, and a grasp.
An early demo video offers some example products that could be powered by Touche: a music player controlled only through touch gestures on your own body such as clasping your hands, a smart doorknob that sets a status like “do not disturb” depending on how it is grasped, or a sofa that turns on the television when someone sits down.
Plants, by comparison, seem a whimsical application of the technology. But magic alone isn’t enough to get Botanicus Interacticus into Disney properties. Inclusion in Disney parks also depends on a series of business considerations in which Botanicus Interacticus, perhaps unexpectedly, seems suited to please.
Seeds, sun, and soil are typically less expensive than interactive man-made objects, and Botanicus Interacticus’s hardware requirements are, for the most part, just a sensor in the dirt. It treats the plant like an electrical circuit, and there’s no need to wire or otherwise configure the plants themselves. Touche sensors can transmit information wirelessly via Bluetooth.
Poupyrev also imagines practical applications for interactive plants beyond entertainment: a plant clock, a music-making garden, or even a plant alarm system that sets off when someone crosses a certain stretch of the yard.
"We create fun for people," Poupyrev says. "But making fun is serious business."