The Baltimore Sun

Until recently, my plant and I didn't have much to say to one another.

In fact, we had nothing. I didn't talk to the vegetation and it, most certainly, didn't talk to me.

But now my little croton has let me in - informing me, delighting me, even almost pestering me with frequent updates on her health, happiness and general well-being. Maybe it's got something to do with sitting next to a computer all these years, but the plant is reaching me online, with short, sweet messages sent through the cutting-edge social network Twitter.

"Water me, please," she asked me late one week.

Hurrying home to enjoy the weekend, I didn't check my messages.

Over the weekend she tried again: "URGENT!" she seemed to yelp in a message, clearly hoping either the all-caps or the emergency punctuation would get my attention. "Water me!"

Alas, no love from me until Monday morning when I finally noticed the desperate cries for attention. Feeling awful, I hurried over with a big cup of water. As I poured it slowly into the pot, the parched soil sucked up every drop.

By the time I got back to my keyboard, she'd sent another message: "Thank you for watering me!"

The technology that enables humans and houseplants to take their relationships to the next level comes from a company called Botanicalls, which sells $99 kits for just that purpose.

It's not only a nifty gadget charming wonks and gardeners alike. Botanicalls, some say, is indicative of the next wave in commercial technology, devices that allow us to interact not just with each other, but with our homes, our pets, our possessions.

"I see all technology going in this direction," says Shawn Van Every, who teaches a course at New York University called Redial, which explores new ways to use the telephone.

He sees vast mass market potential for the idea - in the toy industry, where a plaything could exist in both the real and virtual worlds, or in mobile phones, where people could call home to check on their refrigerator or their dog.

Botanicalls is the brainchild of three students in NYU's interactive telecommunications program, a two-year graduate program in the school's arts department nicknamed by some "the center for the study of the recently possible."

The idea hatched during a quirky conversation. Some of the students were sitting around in their New York office, wistfully missing nature. Someone mentioned getting some plants. Someone else pointed out that no one would remember to water them and they'd die.

"Eventually, we came to the idea of what if a plant could just make us a telephone call?" remembers Kate Hartman, one of Botanicalls' three partners. "What if we could pick up the phone in the lounge and it's the plant on the windowsill, calling to say it wants to be watered?"

The first generation of the Botanicalls technology used the telephone. The creators rigged a moisture sensor to stick a plant's soil to sense how wet the dirt is and then pass that information to a microchip. The chip, in turn, sent the information through the Internet to a phone. The phone would ring, a person would answer and "the plant," in its own individual voice - complete with accents - would have a few words to say about its condition.

The fundamental mechanics behind Botanicalls builds on the sort of technology that enables systems currently on the market - alarm systems that call the police and fire departments or gadgets that allow people to call home and turn on the heat, or start their car from inside on a cold day.

Because the hardware for the phone system was so expensive, it wasn't practical to sell. That's where the Twitter version, released late last year, comes in.

"It's simpler and easier to maintain," Hartman explains. "With a phone, we needed a server and it was expensive to send calls. With Twitter, it's free and the hardware connects right to Twitter."

Recently, as part of the Conflux Festival in New York, Botanicalls sponsored a telephone walking tour of the plants surrounding the conference center where the festival was held. People on the tour called a Botanicalls phone line to hear various plants and trees talk about themselves.

As accessible as they seem, the kits aren't for everyone. They require soldering, for instance, and the ability to program if, say, you want to expand your plant's vocabulary. Still, the company has sold a few dozen kits and gotten interest from publications that cater to techies and do-it-yourselfers.

Hartman guesses the perfect audience for Botanicalls is either a do-it-yourself, crafty sort who's into gardening or an avid techie with a black thumb.

"We're still feeling it out and seeing how it develops," she says. "Right now, it's a tool for watering your plants and a tool for conversation - a way to think about technology and its role in our lives."

Kit buyers are signing up to follow each other's plants on Twitter.

"It creates this really odd social dynamic," says Hartman, who's following her dad's Arbicola on Twitter. "I know whether or not he's taking care of it."

Another thing Botanticalls illustrates is people's growing comfort level with technology. The hardware on the Botanticalls device, a leaf-shaped computer circuit board, is exposed for a reason - the company wants people to touch it - play with it, tweak it and personalize it.

One buyer used his kit on a plant he bought at IKEA, says Rob Faludi, one of the company's founders, who's now an instructor at NYU. The man customized it so that the plant "spoke" to him in Swedish. Other people have modified the circuit so that it works with more than one plant.

Faludi says there's almost a movement afoot to make technology more accessible - to demystify it.

"It's kind of a reaction to technology companies gluing things shut and putting epoxy over the chip," he says. "They didn't want you touching anything. But the DIY movement is an attempt to take control of technology, to say, 'Hey, it's OK to crack open your remote control, your television, your VCR."

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