Project Florence: Opening communication with plant life

Helene Steiner works to expand communication with plants. The resulting dialogue is bizarre and intriguing.

It is no secret that plants have the capacity to assimilate various stimuli. Gardeners across the globe continue to play music for their herbs and bushes, confident that it will enhance plant growth. Helene Steiner, an artist in residency at Microsoft’s Research Studio 99 program in Washington, is finding ways to read the reverse: What if plants can transmit messages of their own?

Dubbed Project Florence, Steiner is spearheading research into the minute electrical discharges and chemical reactions that take place inside plant anatomy. She hopes to translate the chemical signals that plants display into a legible language.

Speaking to CoolHunting, Steiner explains the odd way in which plants communicate as opposed to human interaction.

“Plants do not speak different languages. However, all higher plants do use electro-chemical signals to communicate and activate processes inside themselves. Each species can react differently to stimuli and adapt differently to its own needs. For example, some plants produce bitters to defend themselves against animal attacks, and other plants, such as the Mimosa, shrink away from physical touch,” she says.

Project Florence’s hardware takes the form of a capsule (with many sensory nodes attached), an accompanying computer and an array of light bulbs. The user types a message on the computer which is transmitted to the plant ecosystem capsule in the form of various flashing lights. The state of the plant is monitored closely by sensors that feed data readings back to the computer in response to the light stimulation.

The software delves a little deeper into the necessities of plant communication. Once the user’s message has been submitted, the computer analyses it to determine its sentimental nature. It categorises the message as fundamentally positive or negative. This intervening step is crucial to determine how the message will be presented to the plant in terms of light.

For example, positive messages always result in long, red flashes since that kind of light is conducive to flowering. Intensity, length, repetition, colour and combination form part of the ‘light’ language. It is a kind of visual Morse code. The plant capsule’s sensors then report any fluctuation in the plant’s state. This sensory data is used to judge the plant’s response (if there is any) and the computer interprets its characteristics.

Steiner explained to Fast Co. Design that the conditions around communication play an important role in her research.

“We can almost create moods of the plant and abstract the message that comes back. When I ask you a question and you’re in a really good mood, the response is probably better than [when] you’re tired,” she said.

To help shape this very basic response in a more demonstrable way, Steiner uses Twitter as a phrase bank for the computer to formulate real answers. Project Florence scans for tweets regarding horticulture and forms synthesised answers. These are based on the tone and nature of the user’s initial message as well as the sensory data report of the plant.

Excerpts of recorded dialogue between the Florence system and a user:

Human: How are you feeling?

Florence: As delicate as a flower. In what way are you feeling now, Mandy? ...shake like a leaf.

Human: Are you happy or sad?

Florence: You're cheerful about it anyways or a sad day? ...Make like a tree and leave.

Human: I think you’re nice.

Florence: I believe that you're kind of sweet... Funny farm.

Human: Goodbye.

Florence: Don't love you anymore... cares melt when you kneel in the garden.

Though Florence's responses are quite bizarre, the technology and science behind it constitute valuable inroads in communication between humans and vegetation. Steiner’s research may impact the way humans interact with the natural world at large. She hopes to refine the Florence system in order to formulate more accurate representations of plant language.

The Florence Project may also hold direct benefits for plant survivability. Steiner believes that by activating different chemical reactions in the physiology of the plant with visual stimuli, one can help it to adapt to new conditions faster.

She explains: “The opportunity to interact and communicate with our natural environment opens up the ability to look beyond the physical properties of plants and gives us access to look at the processes and functions of plants. This could lead to novel applications for agriculture to detect things like plant infestation at an earlier stage, requiring fewer pesticides.”