Focused on creating a stronger connection between humans and nature, Botanicalls is a networked sensing communication system that enables houseplants to engage in human communication systems such as telephone calls or Twitter. The project (started in 2006) has travelled through many iterations including several DIY kits and is now included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It is an on-going collaborative project with Rob Faludi, Kati London, and Rebecca Bray.
The original Botanicalls system (initially developed in 2006) enabled houseplants to make phone calls in an effort to open a new channel of communication between plants and humans. It allowed plants to place phone calls for human help. When a plant on the Botanicalls network needs water, it can call a person and ask for exactly what it needs. When people phone the plants, the plants orient callers to their botanical characteristics.
The project originally spawned from completely non-technical conversations about indoor container gardening and the air-filtration qualities of common houseplants while we were graduate students at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Our concern about bringing plants into the ITP community was their chance of survival– high-paced technologists seldom have time to stop and smell the flowers, let alone water them. ‘But, what if,’ we wondered, ‘the plants could call us and tell us what they needed when they needed it? If they assigned us tasks, would this alters or engage us?’
We were interested in empowering both people and plants by inventing new avenues of interaction. Plants that might otherwise be neglected are given the ability to call people and request assistance. People who are unsure of their ability to effectively care for growing things are given visual and aural clues. The goals were as follows:
- Keep the plants alive by translating the communication protocols of the plants (leaf habit, color of foliage, droop, etc) to more common human communication protocols (email, voice phone calls, digital visualizations, etc).
- Enhance people’s connection to plants, and explore the ways plants help humans, how caring for a shared resource can create sense of community, and how natural life is a valuable counterpoint to our technical environment.
- Maintain a sense of humor at all times.
After receiving a great deal of interest in the project we decided to make it more accessible to others. To make the technical setup more accessible we switched from using the Asterisk phone system to the Twitter API. Our Pothos plant was one of the very first non-humans on Twitter and gathered over 3000 followers for its weekly tweets about its water needs. We open sourced our code and hardware designs and proceeded to develop a series of DIY kits so that people could create their own. Our first kit was a set of Arduino shields sold through Adafruit Industries. Our second included a custom, leaf-shaped PCB design. These were made available through Think Geek and Maker Shed. Our third included some minor revisions and was distributed from 2011 to 2016 by Sparkfun Electronics.
Botanicalls received more coverage in the press than we ever could have imagined including the New York Times, BBC, NPR, Wired Magazine, Business Week, and Good Morning America. In 2011 in was included in Paola Antonelli’s “Talk to Me” show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Following the exhibition in October 2011 the Botanicalls Kit was acquired by the museum and is now enjoying a comfortable retirement in their permanent collection.