Pontus - An Interactive Plant
How can we make plants more engaging and expressive and enhance communication with us, so we can take better care of them and also have them play a more active role in our lives. In addition how can we interact with an inanimate but living object?
Mapping the different human - plant interactions that could be enhanced and what information do we want to know from plants, like the amount of water and light they are receiving, or a reminder to water them etc. Also how sound and light could help create these interactions.
Pontus is a plant with a voice. It takes the form of a regular pot to make it feel as if it is the plant that is alive and being interacted with. It does not have have apps or reveal technical data rather uses sounds and expressions to convey basic things when it detects movement around it.
Role in Team
This project was in collaboration with students from the Advanced Product Design programme at Umeå Institute of Design. Although I am an interaction design student, I have a background in industrial design and I was excited to sketch, model and try different forms for the product. I also worked alongside my colleagues to detail and design the most important and basic interactions that would make the plant come alive, also creating sounds and expressions for the plant. I took the responsibility of documenting the entire process over the period of two weeks and put in a helping hand to shoot and edit the videos.
What if your living situation doesn't allow pets? What if you love plants but have trouble keeping them alive? And if you have plants, I am sure, you would love if your plants could talk back to you?
Pontus is your plant, with a voice, a companion. The sounds and expressions are open to interpretation and overtime you learn to understand Pontus’s behaviours and needs. Its basic expressions maybe alarms for water, sunlight or just a conversation when it notices you are in close proximity, craving for some attention.
In this project we have explored how we can interact with an inanimate but living object. Unlike cats and dogs, plants are not very expressive with their feelings or state of being. Plants give us visual feedback of their physical state but it requires special knowledge to interpret it. We want to make plants come alive with audio and visual feedback in order to enhance their communication with us, so we can take better care of them and also have them play a more active role in our lives.
Umeå Institute of Design
MFA Interaction Design
Duration / Year
2 Weeks / Spring 2016
"We loved how technology and the organic were married in a way that adds an extra layer of interaction between humans and something seemingly mundane: house plants."
"While clearly meant for a consumer context, we wonder if there is potential for such technology to help agriculturists on a broader scale."
Pontus calls for attention or notifies the user only when a person is in close proximity, since something can actually be done to attend to it's needs.
Giving a voice to a plant that is inexpressive and immobile helps understand it much better, like we are capable of communicating with animals which remains natural and simple to comprehend.
Open to Interpretation
Sounds and expressions of Pontus are open to interpretation and need to be understood overtime, just like with a child or a pet. The latter do not come with manuals or apps, Pontus doesn’t either.
The prospect of the project excited us as a team, as we have all faced situations where we have failed at taking care of plants. The lack of understanding and communication between humans and plants created an opportunity for us to address.
The products in the market currently are technical devices that you stick into the soil close to the plant, that connects to your phone via an app. The app then provides technical information which may or may not be comprehensible by a normal person. As this was part of a sound design project, we wanted to check if plants actually make noises themselves. There are some ongoing studies showing that researchers have been able to document plant sounds using sensors and electrodes. And they apparently make different sounds when they are in pain or are thirsty.
Ideation and Brainstorming
Discussing three possible directions - Plant wearables, pods or the pot itself. Designing the pot itself creates an illusion and believable that the interactions are coming from the plant itself.
Sketching iterations of forms for the pot and design details for the interaction, electronics, light and sound.
CAD modelling and visualisations for material and colour selection, sizing and finer detailing.
We explored a lot with sound, created soundboards that helped us discuss as a group what we wanted the plant to say and how we wanted it to sound. We recorded our own sounds from very different materials - metal, wood, plastic, water droplets, nylon cords and even real plants. We also downloaded sounds and we mixed and matched, cut, changed the pitch, changed speed, added reverberation, layered them on top of each other, etc.
We needed to create something people would understand, so we prototyped sound sets and went on the lookout for listeners. We printed and cut out different flash cards with messages and emotions people could choose from to describe what they were listening to when we played our samples.
Initially our goal was to create a sound that “sounded like a plant”, organic, delicate, natural. However, from our testing we discovered that since plants have never made an audible sound for us to hear, we have no clue what they would sound like. So any sound that we created, would be related to something else that regularly emits a similar sound. Therefore, what we had to focus our attention on was the message the sound was conveying and leave the aesthetics of the sound a bit aside, but not straying away from what was believable for a plant.