rebecca's WIP

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fall 2014

Yesterday Nick and I began our latest adventure working with Powrplnt. As part of Powrplnt’s second installment, we’ll be installing Root Note at Red Bull Studios (starting Feb 27) and teaching a 6-week course on plant sensing and sonification to high school students from City As School.

The class will run in two parallel strands: Nick will be teaching the segment on sonification (teaching Max, sound design, generative sound, etc.) and I’ll be teaching the segment on sensing (Arduino basics, working with sensors, etc.) Our two groups will then collaborate to produce a giant sonic garden (Root Note but amplified) in the Red Bull Space, which will open at the beginning of April.

Yesterday was our intro class so we taught together. We introduced the students to what they’ll be learning, showed them examples of interesting / inspiring projects, and bounced around some initial ideas. It was pretty amazing to get a new perspective from them on something I’ve been thinking about for months.

I’l be documenting the process here. See our awesome group of students below (plus our slides from the first day).

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An interesting reference for Root Note, and thinking about how it might exist on a larger scale (or with a visual element).

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Root Note now has a website!

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Root Note is a botanical audio interface and generative soundscape that brings to life the dynamic relationship between plants and their surroundings. Hidden from the observer, capacitive touch sensors, photocells and moisture sensors embedded in the soil register changes in the plants’ environment such as the presence of human touch, fluctuations in light, and overall soil moisture level. Using an Arduino microcontroller, this data from the plants is routed into the audio synthesis environment Max where it is used to control aspects of the sound. Through their observation and interaction, the audience takes part in sculpting a real-time aural representation of the plants’ environment. The changing soundscape is a reflection on symbiosis and interspecies entanglement.

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For some pcomp projects, fabrication is a final step in the process — an enclosure, a final polish, a cherry on top. In the case of my physical computing final, fabrication considerations were an instrumental part in conceptualizing the project, thinking about the user interaction and designing the final physical setup.

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For our materials assignment, the rules were straightforward — combine two materials — but difficult — no plywood, no acrylic. I wanted to experiment with metal since it’s something I’ve never worked with before, so I decided to make wind chimes using copper pipe.

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James Bridle’s Rorschmap is a kaleidoscopic reconfiguration of Google Street View.

Bridle says: Rorschmap is cartographic navel-gazing, a reframing of the map. It will not help you find anything. We are bored with your squares and your margins. We want new shapes and new dimensions, the unicode snowmen of visual representation. Read more about the project here.


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I recently came across Christoph de Boeck’s work in this article about an exhibition called the Digital Now. Two of his pieces, Hortus and Plant Condition, seemed particularly relevant to our pcomp final and the thinking we’ve been doing around sound and plants. Hortus in particular makes me think of how we might imagine our piece Root Note existing at a larger scale. Text and videos below are taken directly from Christoph de Boeck’s website.

Plant Condition, 2011

This plant is on display in a glass box in an exhibition room. Small servo motors attached to the plant make the stems move. These motors are networked with a similar plant located in the museum or gallery garden. A sensor measures the inclination of the stem caused by the wind. The free movements of the outdoor plant are captured and transmitted as instructions for the domesticated plant indoors.

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For our final playtest last Monday, we had a full prototype of our system ready to go on a single plant. We wired up the plant with a capacitive sensor, as well as a photocell and routed the data from those sensors into a Max patch. (We put the moisture sensor on hold because of interference with the cap sensors, which we’re still working on resolving). Within Max, the photocell controlled a low-pass filter while the capacitive sensor controlled the metronome and the volume (increasing tempo and volume as you touched the plants). Though we used a set of headphones for our playtest, you can get an idea of how it’s working here.

The playtest generated a ton of invaluable feedback for us. (One major discovery was that our cap sensors also turned the soil around the plant into a touch sensor which was pretty amazing!) Overall, we were happy with how things worked and the general level of responsiveness that our sensors were giving us. People seemed to approach the project with a sense of wonder and joy, and they had fun playing with it. For the most part, it seemed like people understood that the plants were responding to them in some way.

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