Disney Turns Houseplants Into Multi-Touch Surfaces

And it only requires a single wire in the soil.

It’s easy to imagine the future as an LCD-infused world, or a giant augmented reality app in which every rock has its own like button. But not everyone is working toward such a future.


Ivan Poupyrev, from Disney Research, imagines a world in which computers aren’t built, they’re grown. And he’s been developing a new technology called Touche that can transform virtually anything into a multitouch surface, from a tank of water to a human hand–even a simple houseplant.

“Plants are great: they grow themselves, they heal themselves, it is easy to take care of them and people like them,” Poupyrev tells Co.Design. “All we need is to create a special sensor and plant becomes a remote control.”

That special sensor is at the core of Poupyrev’s research. It’s actually just a single diode–a mere wire sticking into the soil–that can add multitouch, proximity-sensing capabilities to plants. As sci-fi as that sounds, its core technologies are easy to grasp. The average capacitive display in our phones uses a single frequency to spot where our fingers end up on a uniform surface. Poupyrev’s sensor uses a vast multitude of frequencies, ranging from 1kHz to 3MHz, that each pass through the plant’s anatomy a bit differently. This allows a nearby computer, which sees the plant as a standard electrical circuit, to pinpoint contact with remarkable analog precision (meaning you do some pretty crazy things, like play an orchid’s stem like a slide whistle and its leaves as drums).

“The main limitation is plant physiology. Different plants respond very differently and some do not work at all,” Poupyrev explains. “We are still trying to work out which particular plants work better and which are not as good.”

In the meantime, Poupyrev isn’t attenuating the pursuit of new applications. He’s already found that the real multitouch plants can be duplicated in electronic circuits, meaning we can ostensibly clone any one plant’s play experience. He’s also teamed up with Berlin’s Studio NAND and TheGreenEyl to develop an augmented reality application that debuted at SIGGRAPH. It used the same multitouch technology developed at Disney, but it added a half-silver mirror, which displayed live interactive CGI to give the plant graphics and animations.

Augmented reality interface, mirror view.

Yet as neat as this demo may have been, it’s actually a step removed from Poupyrev’s core mission, to guide us away from that future riddled with more and more displays, toward one in which we can all take time to smell the roses, literally.


“My long-term interest is in developing technologies that will allow us to design really responsive and intelligent living and working spaces, you know the idea of ubiquitous computing. While it is relatively easy to instrument office space or home with sensors, it is much harder to do it with outside environments, such as a park or a garden,” Poupyrev explains. “You would have to put artificial infrastructure, sensor cables, and antennas and so on, which doesn’t seem like an elegant solution. So, that is how I got interested in using living plants, that are already plenty around us, as sensors that would sense our presence and behaviors. It allows to hide artificial infrastructure and make interface organic, green.”

Besides, all these interactive plants are just perfect for Disneyland, no?

Read more here.

[Hat tip: FlowingData]


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach