Thirsty plants can Twitter for water with new device

WASHINGTON Thu Mar 26, 2009 3:40am GMT

Water droplets drip down the flowers of a bougainvillea plant in Amman December 25, 2008. REUTERS/Ali Jarekji

Water droplets drip down the flowers of a bougainvillea plant in Amman December 25, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Ali Jarekji

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WASHINGTON (Reuters Life!) - Chances are you've never had a conversation with your house plants but if they could talk, what would they say? "Water me."

Researchers at New York University's interactive telecommunications program have come up with a device that allows plants to tell owners when they need water or if they've had too much via the social network blogging service Twitter.

"Obviously plants can't talk or Twitter directly, so we have to help them along with that," said Rob Faludi, co-creator of the device called Botanicalls.

The device is made of soil-moisture sensors that are connected to a circuit board. They measure the level of moisture, and then communicate the information to a microcontroller.

"There are settings in the software that allow you to set what kind of plant you're using and also adjust for characteristics of the soil, different soil has different qualities," said Faludi.

The device determines whether moisture levels are too low, or too high, and then transmits a wireless signal to Twitter, via the Internet, which lets people send short, 140-character text messages to their network of friends.

Botanicalls co-creator Kate Hartman said the language used in the Twitter messages can be personalized to suit the owner, or the type of plant.

"There's always a basic "I'm thirsty, could you please water me" message. But they also accelerate in terms of need, so there's an urgent message: "I'm desperately thirsty, please water me,"" Hartman told Reuters.

GROWING TWITTER FOLLOWING

Due to word of mouth, Hartman's plant, 'Pothos,' has more than 2,300 subscribers on Twitter (twitter.com/pothos).

Every day followers receive messages updating them on the plant's soil moisture content, and whether it's being cared for.

"I feel a bit more guilty when I don't water Pothos, because everybody knows," laughed Hartman.

To date, Hartman and Faludi have sold nearly 100 of the Botanicalls kits for $99 each with the device needing to be assembled from basic parts which Faludi said can be challenging but worthwhile in the end.

"Actually receiving a message from a plant is just very engaging, and I think kind of unexpected. There's a magic to it that people really enjoy," said Faludi.

The new technology follows on from an earlier Botanicalls model released in 2007 that enabled plants to make a phone call to their owners when they needed water.

Each plant had a 'voice' to match the plant type, such as the Scottish moss, which had a Scottish accent.

But the earlier model required expensive hardware, and wasn't practical to sell which prompted the Twitter version.

"There's a lot of interest right now in smart objects - basically, devices that have the ability to communicate. This is a type of technology that is becoming much more prevalent as the cost of wireless communications goes down," said Faludi.

"The spirit of Botanicalls is not creating a robotic plant. The spirit of Botanicalls is really re-engaging people with nature and getting them to pay attention." (Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)

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