2022 I Harpreet Sarren

Prof. Sareen will be working on a projecte around alternative and “calm” visualizations of data using plants or other biological organisms. This work will be included in the recently accepted Equipex+ Continuum grant (successor of Digiscope) and enable a fusion between natural and digital visualization tools. The project fits nicely into one of the goals of Continuum, providing a digital infrastructure to artist to explore alternative data visualizations. Prof. Sareen has a
perfect background in computer science and design to be able to leverage the provided infrastructure. Prof. Sareen would be able to provide a symbiotic effect between both projects, Labex DigiCosme and Equipex+ Continuum.


3 months: April 1st – July 31st

Axe scientifique DigiCosme IID

Work Program

1. Motivation, Problem and Proposal

With the rise of ubiquitous computing and IoT, the amount of data generated for the user is currently growing at an extremely high rate (e.g. smart home data, health data). To be able to manage and understand this data, researchers have explored a variety of ways to visualize and present this information to the user often focusing around performance metrics such as efficiency, effectiveness and understandability. For data visualizations or displays, designers often borrow metaphors from the nonliving parts of the natural world. Such artificial displays are all too common. However, a new scope of information visualization is emerging where combining living organisms with electronic components can serve as interactive displays as well. Research around technology usage indicates that with the rise of data and information processing comes a set of psychological implications for well-being (e.g. anxiety, depression, information overload). In this research project, we aim to explore how the current amount of digital data can be presented to the user in alternative ways, with the goal of preserving certain performance metrics but mainly optimizing for well-being. There is value in exploring the use of living material and biomimetic forms in displays, and in using lightweight robotics to deliver simple rewards. We aim to investigate concept “calm visualization” or “calm data”, by leveraging non-traditional displays (e.g. bio displays / natural displays) to be able to present certain data to the user in a subtle and calming but still understandable form. The project will be positioned within the research axis IID-4 of DigiCosme, working on alternative forms of interacting and visualizing data streams.

2. Solution and Method

Our approach builds upon the background of the invited Professor Harpreet Sareen, who has a history of instrumenting and augmenting plants and nature and developing novel forms of display technologies. Some of this research includes ‘growable electronics – electronics [1] growing inside xylem of a plant ’, ‘nanobionics [2] – nanosensors that glow from within plants to inform of water quality’ and directed growth of plants to visualize data. These projects have previously been published in international media (Discovery, CNN, BBC etc.) and showcased at international scholarly/artistic venues around the world.
This project aims to explore how plants (e.g. house plants) and nature can be symbiotically included and leveraged to visualize certain data to the users in a calm and more natural form. Consider posters/billboards or interactive displays for showcase of information in a natural environment. Luminous displays themselves stand out when placed in natural scenery which makes them difficult to integrate in cities and even in indoor environments. Unlike a ‘Times Square’ and constant onslaught of information’, we want to research displays that can keep our cities and urban spaces more warm/hospitable. We propose ‘green media’ that has both qualities of greening and presenting information. By leveraging the attributes of plants, and computationally and gently controlling their behavior, we aim to develop a novel information representation that can blend in with the natural environment. Such information displays could present novel and exciting ways of showcasing
information in the cities without necessarily standing out like interactive displays. In our research project, we aim to explore slow moving data (e.g. movement of a glacier — suitable for a slow changing bio-display made by controlling the growth of a slow-moving moss – Racomitrium canescens [3]). The surface of open Racomitrium canescens shifts as time elapses. In this way, the opened and closed Racomitrium canescens create a gradation pattern that shifts with time. We will
develop the hardware to control the appearance of the Racomitrium canescens, or another grass species [4]. By arranging several units, we simultaneously open and close the alternate columns of living display to develop into a large living display wall. Such methods of using plants and nature as a bio display is also applicable to indoor environments. The aliveness of plants could contribute to a compelling and engaging emotional quality in designs.

3. Implications

Our design is an example of lightweight robotics in a public setting, using simple sensors, processors, and
actuators to deliver small yet effective visualizations. If people’s affinity for other living things were to
translate into a receptivity to living things used as displays, we would expect such displays to be engaging
and compelling. The conducted research project has the goal of exploring a new type of visualization known as “calm
visualization” which has the goal of presenting data to the user not with the aim of optimizing
performance metrics but with the aim of optimizing for well-being. The addition of living materials may
introduce an emotional quality absent from interactions with purely electromechanical systems We aim
to characterize public reactions to such biodisplays and disseminate our research via two forms: (a)
submitting the resulting prototype as an art installation / art exhibition and (b) submit the concept and
insights of a study to a fitting top-tier HCI conferences such as CHI, UIST, DIS or IEEE VIS.

[1]: Sareen, Harpreet, Jiefu Zheng, and Pattie Maes. “Cyborg botany: augmented plants as sensors, displays and
actuators.” Extended Abstracts of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2019.
[2] Sareen, Harpreet, and Pattie Maes. “Cyborg Botany: Exploring In-Planta Cybernetic Systems for Interaction.”
Extended Abstracts of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2019.
[3] https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=RACA11
[4] Ackroyd, Heather, and Dan Harvey. “Chlorophyll Apparitions.” Signs Of Life (2007): 199.