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physical computing

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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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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This weekend was a marathon. Nick and I focused primarily on fabricating our planter box and creating our system on one plant in preparation for our final user testing on Monday. Here’s our progress from the past few days —

Fabrication:
We created our planter box out of 3/4 inch birch plywood and in the process came to realize the extent to which wood + water + electronics don’t mix. Or at least present a very tricky combination.

The 2 x 2 foot box needs to be very sturdy, since it will be holding the weight of a lot of soil, but we also want to keep the wood somewhat unmarred on the exterior (ie. no screws). So, we used dowel pins to hold the pieces of the box together. We couldn’t find a doweling jig in the shop so I made my own out of a piece of plywood and it worked fairly well. In the end, we used dowel pins and wood glue, and added just two screws to one of the sides for some extra stability.

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Over the past few days, Nick and I continued experimenting with sensors in an effort to finalize which ones we will and won’t be using for our final project. We made some contact mics out of piezo discs which was very simple, but we then had a hard time figuring out how to amplify them. Nick tirelessly worked on a few different amplification circuits that were very complicated and time-consuming and ultimately not successful. Finally, we decided to plug the contact mics into an analog mixer which worked perfectly. We played around with using the contact mics to dig through the soil and were able to get some really interesting sounds.

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Our focus this past week was to work through any remaining questions / problems with our sensors. We made sure they work and give us the ranges of data we need to produce expressive sound. We also experimented with different ways to get different kinds of data from our sensors (ie. watering the plant versus spraying it, changing position and direction, etc.)

Below is a run-down of what we did (and did not) accomplish from our week 2 goals:

Build DIY soil sensors and capacitive touch sensors
This past week, we put aside our sensors from Adafruit and decided to experiment with some other ways to sense soil moisture and capacitance. We first built our own soil moisture sensors using some galvanized wire and a foam block, and found that using the longer probes was helpful for getting a wider range of readings.

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The PhytoSense façade system is an interactive green facade that uses swept frequency capacitive sensing to play with light depending on touch.  An array of plants selected by their texture lets the user interact and be in “touch” with them by fading light to the plants being touched. But how does it work? How can the plant “feel” when it is being touched?

More info on PhytoSense here.

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