An evolutionary approach to interface design


The "DIY, plant!" research project aims to design a multitouchscreen interface for plants so they can control their supply of water and light themselves by pressing touchscreen-button controls with their leaves.

For a while how, there has been a rise in the amount of bio-art projects connecting pieces of living nature to mechanical or computerized environments. It is a popular approach in times when digitally there aren't any limits or boundaries anymore. Everything is possible, and nothing really excites. The involvement of insects, animals or plants into art projects provides new difficulties to solve, thereby re-challenging artists. And their audiences. With spectators becoming largely indifferent to faster or bigger or newer technologies, the touchscreen-plant arouses the attention of an audience because of its contrast to our digitized contemporary world and its ultimate slowness. An upcoming button press could be a cliffhanger of days.

But the "DIY, plant!" project is more than an application of bio-art for the sake of the spectacle. Beyond the visually intriguing form is a bio-art piece focused on achieving truly functional dynamics between plant and technology. Acknowledging the extreme complexity of true scientific biological adaptations of the involved plant, and foremostly, respecting the wisdom that nature does possess, the approach taken is not aimed at changing nature and forcing the needs of a touchscreen onto a plant, but the plant is taken as the point of reference, and the interface is being reshaped and refined according to the plants' needs.

The way the interface design process is carried out, matches the way nature would do it: in evolutionary ways. Evolving interface variations will be test-cased by a living plant which tries to survive using one specific interface configuration. Analysing the growth results of the plants will guide the path through a tree-like structure of possible interface variations towards an optimal plant interface.

Once an interface has been found which allows a plant to survive autonomously, questions will arise whether this means that a plant possesses intelligence. Studies on the intersection of the disciplines psychology and biology have identified signs of intelligent behaviour by plants, such as inter-component or inter-species communication and reaction. But the non-central and thus non human-like manifestation of its intelligence and has made it difficult for us humans to relate to the topic of intelligent plants. This "DIY, plant!" project could provide new input to this ongoing debate, if assumed that using a computer interface requires some sort of intelligence, which the plant then proves to have.

If the conclusion can be drawn that a new intelligent breed of interactive media users has entered the stage, that's good news for new media artists because it could provide a solution to the issue mentioned earlier: the increased difficulty to reach the busy and overloaded nowadays' audience. Plants could act as perfect substitutes, being ultra concentrated and reliable users for interactive new media installations.

If that sounds like nonsense, then actually, the whole bio-art discipline could be called nonsense. If bio-art with a true goal as the one above, true meaningful interaction between nature and technology, is nonsense. What sense does it then make to practice bio-art with less ambitious targets, just showcasing one-off examples of bio/computer interaction, except for some stunning visual results?

In some way, the experiment is a reflection on the bio-art discipline as a whole. Following a gigantic detour, incorporating complex hardware and enforcing a protocolised testing design process of years, the aim of the "DIY, plant!" project is to let a plant survive independently. But, plants have been doing that for a billion years already, without any computers. Still, on the way during this seemingly unnessesary research project, the added value of bio-art shows off: projects like this act as unique vehicles for interdisciplinary contact, cooperation, and an exchange of thoughts on contemporary issues.

More text about the philosophy behind the plant as user of interactive media?

Dissertation written in 2009 by Sander Veenhof graduating at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy DOGtime Instable Media department