Home > Design, english, Plants > Visualizing techniques with plants for Interaction Design

Visualizing techniques with plants for Interaction Design

Nowadays information becomes more pervasive and crucial in a knowledge-based society [ZhaoMoere2008]. Therefore it is important for a society to develop an easy access to communicate meaning and functionality of information [MoereOffenhuber2009]. The easiest information access exists in our natural everyday physical environment. Public screens attempt to address this task. Unfortunately, current public screens hold several disadvantages for our public environment. They need a dedicated flat surface, illuminating their surrounded environments, and address only the visual sense. Furthermore, people often associate public screens with advertisement and pay less attention to them [MoereOffenhuber2009]. Therefore, it is rational to investigate information displays beyond the traditional screen-based visualizations. Plants are one of these objects, which are omnipresent in our daily physical environment. For this reason, data sculptures with plants might be an alternative approach to solve the problems of public screens and reach wide audiences. The following artworks are interpreted as the next development steps of the contemporary plant-based artworks from chapter 2.3 “Ethnobotany”. In this stage electronic and digital technology is applied to plants.

Within the scope of my research I will present a qualitative evaluation of visualizing techniques with plants. The evaluation model is based on the comparison methods developed by Andrew Vande Moere, Dietmar Offenhuber [MoereOffenhuber2009], and as well as Matthew Brehmer, and Tamara Munzner (2013) [BrehmerMunzer]. The evaluation result reveals their visual encoding techniques, and which characteristic of data they visualize. Furthermore, the outcome assigns approaches of creating more intriguing, and easy memorable visualizations.

Methodology of the qualitative evaluation

The objective of this qualitative research is a precise comparison of plant-based visualization tools across their application domain. The analysis model is a combination of the “Multilevel Typology of Abstract Visualization” (2013) by Matthew Brehmer and Tamara Munzner and the “Contextual Taxonomy of Alternative Information Display” (2009) by Andrew Vande Moere, Andrew and Dietmar Offenhuber.

The first iteration of the analysis clusters the artworks in their environmental context [MoereOffenhuber2009]. This clustering analysis answers the question of the used visualization methods “Visualization as Translation without context”, “Visualization as Augmentation within context”, and “Visualization as Embodiment”. The result of this research revealed a group of four different clusters, which are distinguished strongly on their visualization approaches. The cluster marker connects the physical world with digital world by a visual linkage technique. The cluster plant displays evolves the method of “Wachstumsskulpturen” as previous described in chapter “2.3 Ethnobotany” and utilizing plant movements in some projects, too. The technique of projection mapping introduces projects that adapted these techniques from visualizations on buildings to plants. The last cluster printing makes an intensive use of plant and seed arrangement in various environmental contexts.


Evaluation template of visualizations with plants (more details in the appendix)

Evaluation template of visualizations with plants (more details in the appendix)


The second iteration investigates each cluster on its data and task oriented attributes. The analysis method is derived from the classification methodology of Matthew Brehmer and Tamara Munzner [BrehmerMunzer]. The applied qualitative evaluation template includes all their topologies “why”, “how” and “what”. The concept “why” explores the story of the visual content and its intention for the user. Furthermore, it examines if the visualized information is searchable. The task analysis of query, filter, aggregate and derive are excluded from my definition of the topology “what”. These tasks are too much related to screen-based visualization. It will not be possible to perform these tasks within a visualization technique with plants. The term “how” involves an evaluation of interactive and data input tasks. The topology “what” determines the character of data (e.g. categorical, ordinal, quantitative, and so on). A more detailed explanation of the evaluation components is available in figure 15 above and in the Appendix section of this thesis.

The marker cluster

This cluster contains only the art project LEAF++, which is an interactive infoscape based on leaves [ISEA2011]. Their mobile application detects the shape and structure of a leaf (Visualization as Embodiment) and assigns a unique marker ID. This marker can be linked with any digital data, as we know it from the well-known counterparts barcode and QR-Code. The feature of a digital attachment to a physical object fulfils the requirements of augmented reality. It can be applied in any urban and natural environment. For this reason, the linked data can be browsed, explored and edited between people within its local context.

Leaf++: Scanning the leaf with your smart phone

Leaf++: Scanning the leaf with your smart phone


The cluster of plant displays

The cluster of plant displays counts 15 visualization projects. That is the biggest collection within a cluster. Every project visualizes a story or data in the form of a plant. The plant becomes a data sculpture by itself. Hence, all projects hold the characteristic of Visualization as Embodiment. The visualized data is translated in plant growth, and plants health. These kinds of projects are addressed to a further developed approach of the “Wachstumsskulpturen” from chapter “2.3 Ethnobotany”. Another translation of data to plants utilizes the plants movement.

The visualizations, which make use of plant growth and plant health, involve the recording task. The recorded data has always a time-based dimension. The time-based information is mostly connected with other quantitative data. The sources of this quantitative data are very diverse. One of the first data visualization with plants was the artwork “Yucca invest trading plant” (1999) by Ola Pehrson. The plant visualized the development process of a stock, very similar to the plant display “Spore” (2004) by the art collective S.W.A.M.P [Douglas2004]. in the year 2004. Within the time period of these two projects, Phil Ross experimented intensively with hydroponic driven plant displays. One of his first successful projects was the “Jarred In” (2002) installation, the plant sculpture “Juggernaut” was completed in 2004. His project “Junior’s Return” (2005) was the first project that connected the approach of visualizing data with a plant [Ross2007]. The visualized data showed the available battery capacity of the plant display and how long the plant will survive. The project “Soil Clock” (2009) by Marieke Staps does exactly the opposite. It generates the electric power from a plant and water for running a clock [Ars2010]. In the years from 2006 to 2008 artists evolved the technique of data visualization with plants. The hydroponic approach of Phil Ross was maybe an inspiration for the Japanese artists Satoshi Kuribayashi and Akira Wakita. They developed a plant display that visualized the communication behaviour of an individual to friends [KuriWak2006]. The collective artwork “The Garden Eden” (2007) was a plant based display for visualizing air pollution of the G8 capital cities [Ars2007, WilksKieslMoser2007]. The plant displays and installation by Terike Haapoja addresses environmental conditions. Her plant installation “Dialogue” (2008) visualizes the CO2 exchange between humans and a tree through the tree growth. Her other art project “Anatomy of a Landscape” (2008) is a complete closed ecosystem for plants that is influenced by light conditions from outside [HaLai2013]. The approach of creating a closed ecosystem fascinated also the Japanese artist Azuma Mamakoto. He created the plant installation “Paludarium SUGURU” (2012) for revealing the interactions between different plant species.

“Yucca invest trading plant” (1999) by Ola Pehrson

“Yucca invest trading plant” (1999) by Ola Pehrson

“Jarred in” (2002) by Phil Ross

“Jarred in” (2002) by Phil Ross

“Juggernaut” (2004) by Phil Ross

“Juggernaut” (2004) by Phil Ross











“Junior’s Return” (2005) by Phil Ross

“Junior’s Return” (2005) by Phil Ross

“Spore” (2004-2007) from S.W.A.M.P.

“Spore” (2004-2007) from S.W.A.M.P.

“Plant Display” (2006) by Satoshi Kuribayashi and Akira Wakita

Hydroponic “Plant Display” (2006) by Satoshi Kuribayashi and Akira Wakita

“The Garden Eden” (2007) installation by Timm-Oliver Wilks, Thorsten Kiesl, and Harald Moser

“The Garden Eden” (2007) installation by Timm-Oliver Wilks, Thorsten Kiesl, and Harald Moser

The installation “Dialogue” (2008) by Terike Haapoja

The installation “Dialogue” (2008) by Terike Haapoja

“Anatomy of a Landscape” (2008) by Terike Haapoja

“Anatomy of a Landscape” (2008) by Terike Haapoja









Soil clock (2009) by Marieke Staps

Soil clock (2009) by Marieke Staps

“Paludarium SUGURU” (2012) by Azuma Mamakoto

“Paludarium SUGURU” (2012) by Azuma Mamakoto.



















From a technical point of view, the plant displays became more advanced over time. In the beginning the water supply and the light condition were used for influencing the plant growth. Later the project “The Garden Eden” [Ars2007, WilksKieslMoser2007] experimented with gas and air, very similar to the “Dialogue” installation by Terike Haapoja, which dealt with the CO2 values within the environment. In the end complete closed ecosystems were maintained and controlled by machines and algorithms (e.g. “Anatomy of a Landscape” and "Paludarium Suguru"). From an environmental point of view, none of these artworks are really augmented in their natural environment. Especially, the projects with a controlled lightning system or closed ecosystem need a room without natural light conditions. From information design and a task oriented point of view, almost every project visualized data or hold at least a narrative characteristic. Moreover, the data values were translated to important environmental circumstances of a plant and influenced the current plant lifecycle. The data is stored and recorded in the development of the plant over its complete lifetime.

In contrast of the above mentioned projects, in 2002 artists and designer started simultaneously experimenting with plant movement. For instance the project “Tsunagari kan – Family Plant” (2002-2005) investigated the capabilities of an artificial plant to visualize human presence at other places trough a rotation movement [MiItWat2002, MiItWat2005]. The project “Infotropism” (2004) utilized the plant’s phototropism ability for a directed growth process. The growth direction presented a display about the usage of the recycled garbage compared to the normal garbage container. Afterwards they mimicked this process with a robotic sculpture [HoKePeFo2004]. In 2012, the interactive projects “Flona” (2012) by Furi Sawaki, Kentaro Yasu, and Masahiko Inami [SaYaIn2012] and “Mediated Body of Plants” (2012) by Kent Wilson used kinetic gestures caused by motors as their visualization technique for communication information. The performed kinetic gestures are rotating, waving, shuddering, or the movement of certain branches. The data attributes of these visualizations are mostly about motion data (e.g. human presence) or critical states (e.g. too less water for the plants). From a design perspective all these plant displays with movement as visualization technique are augmented in their environment. From a task oriented point of view, these projects are able to communicate on real-time but they do not record the data within the plant lifecycle.




Cluster of projection mapping

Projection Mapping is well-known as a visualization technique on architectures (media facades). Artists projected stunning animations on a building’s facade. The elements of the facade are often involved in the design of the animation. The results are new spatial experiences of an environment. Craig Walsh was one of the first artist who projected static images and minor animation of human heads on trees in the beginning of 1998. His projection installations “Human Nature” (1998-2008) and “Spacemakers” (2013) are great examples for the effort of integrating projecting mappings in natural environments. The artist Clement Briend uses in his projection installation “Cambodian Trees” (2009) the same techniques as Craig Walsh did. Except of the human head projections, Clement Briend projected spiritual symbols in public spaces. The animation and visualization studio Apparati Effimeri adapted these projection methods and added complex animations to their approach. During 2011 they experimented with the shape of a tree to create a new spatial experience. The projected animated leaves had a fluent transition to the real physical leaves. These projected leaves can be hardly distinguished from the real ones. In 2013 they advanced their projection technique considerably that they were able to present a complex animation story projected on several trees. This projection installation “Incanto Mutevole” (2013) was harmonically presented in the environment of the Montagnola Park in Bologna. These introduced projection mappings are totally augmented in their environment. The arrangement of the visual content is based on the shape and size of the tress. For this reason, each of this visualization is an embodied visualization.



Projection on trees, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2012 / Clement BRIEND from Clément BRIEND on Vimeo.


Beyond that non-interactive approach of projection mapping, the artist duo Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau investigated the capabilities of projecting real-time data on a tree. Their installation “Data Tree” (2009) visualizes crucial environmental data (e.g. humidity, temperature, wind) on the trees leaves [StSoMi2009, pages 10-12]. In contrast to the  next project, the work “Data Tree” holds augmented as well as embodied attributes.


“Data Tree” (2009) by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau

The project “Data Tree” (2009) by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau maps environmental real-time data on a tree [StSoMi2009, pages 10-12].

The projection mapping “Lit tree” (2011) by the studio Kimchi and Chips is not augmented in a public environment, but it enables projection mapping on a plant in an exhibition context. Moreover, the project enhances the visual experience with a human interactive component. The visitors can move their hands within a motion sensitive area. The motion data will be visualized as 3D pixel on a bush. The most frequented areas provide more light than their less frequented counterparts. The plant grows better in the more illuminated locations. In that context, the history of the motion data is stored and visualized in the plant’s growth. This additional visualization feature is assigned as a method of translation.

Lit Tree from Mimi Son on Vimeo.



Cluster of printing approach

The printing approach visualizes data through a predefined arrangement of seeds or plants. The print sizes ranges from table size to the size of a field. Allison Kudla’s “Capacity for (urban eden, human error) Bumbershoot Version” (2007) and Benedikt Groß’s “Avena+ Test Bed”(2013) arrange seeds depending on algorithm generated visual pattern. Their visual outputs are graph-specific objects. The representation of nodes and paths belong to these visual outputs. The project “Organograph” (since 2008) uses bedding plants instead of seeds. All three projects translate their data in a 2D coordinates system. The “Organograph” and the “Avena+Test Bed” are seamless integrated in their environment. For instance, the “Organograph” is involved as a sculpture inside a park. Its visualization output beautifies a path of the park in an educational context. The “Avena + Test Bed” still meets the requirements of an ordinary field. The only exception is the bigger variation of plants within the field. The higher biodiversity of the field is the artists call for more biodiversity in current agriculture. These two projects are definitely augmented visualizations.

In contrast to that, Allison Kudla’s artwork is not augmented. Her print approach uses the technology of a CNC machine. The machine runs in an exhibition space. Additionally to the printing approach, her artwork “Capacity for (urban eden, human error) Bumbershoot Version” uses the feature of plant’s growth. The plant’s growth emphasizes her visualizations of networks and clusters. All three visualization embody their input data.

Allison Kudla's capacity for (urban eden, human error) Bumbershoot Version

Allison Kudla's Capacity for (urban eden, human error) Bumbershoot Version




Results of the evaluation

All of the introduced visualization techniques have an embodied context. Particularly, the translation of quantitative data to plant’s growth and health emphasizes the “Visualization as embodiment”. Most of the mentioned projects provide the method of “Visualization as augmentation”. For this reason, plant based visualization is an appropriate tool for information visualization in an urban and natural environment.

The complexity of visualized data is low in most of the projects. For instance, the plant displays represent usually one or two data values. The changes of data values do not appear immediately. It takes some time until the transformation become visible by plant’s growth. For this reason, the visualization with plants is suited for mid to long term data visualizations.

If the precision of visualization have to be more accurate, then the projection mapping or printing method might be a suitable solution. Especially, the projection mapping approach offers a big scope of play. Furthermore, none of the plant displays projects involve certain life cycles (e.g. blossom) of a plant yet. This particular life cycles could be utilized for visualizing more complex data. In this relation, visualization with plants provides an interesting scope for an on-going research.

The evaluation reveals that rich, better accessible and more emotional visualizations for our everyday environment are established with plants.


[MiItWat2002] Yoshihiro Itoh, Asami Miyajima, and Takumi Watanabe (2002). ‘TSUNAGARI’ communication: fostering a feeling of connection between family members. In CHI ‘02 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI EA ‘02). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 810-811.

[Douglas2004] Douglas Easterly (2004). Bio-Fi: inverse biotelemetry projects. In Proceedings of the 12th annual ACM international conference on Multimedia (MULTIMEDIA ‘04). ACM, New York, NY, USA.

[HoKePeFo2004] David Holstius, John Kembel, Amy Hurst, Peng-Hui Wan, and Jodi Forlizzi (2004). Infotropism: living and robotic plants as interactive displays. In Proceedings of the 5th conference on Designing interactive systems: processes, practices, methods, and techniques (DIS ‘04). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 215-221.

[MiItWat2005] Miyajima, A., Itoh, Y., Itoh, M. & Watanabe, T. (2005). ”Tsunagari-kan” Communication: Design of a New Telecommunication Environment and a Field Test with Family Members Living Apart. In International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 2005, 19, 253-276.

[KuriWak2006] Satoshi Kuribayashi and Akira Wakita (2006). PlantDisplay: turning houseplants into ambient display. In Proceedings of the 2006 ACM SIGCHI international conference on Advances in computer entertainment technology (ACE ‘06). ACM, New York, NY, USA, Article 40.

[WilksKieslMoser2007] Timm-Oliver Wilks, Thorsten Kiesl, and Harald Moser (2007). The Garden Eden

[Ars2007] Leopoldseder, Hannes; Schöpf, Christine; Stocker, Gerfied (2007). Ars Electronica 2007: CyberArts, p.238. Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2007.

[Ross2007] Ross, Philip (2007). BioTechnique. Exhibition catalogue, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2007.

[ZhaoMoere2008] Zhao, Jack and Vande Moere, Andrew (2008). Embodiment in data sculpture: a model of the physical visualization of information. In Proceedings of the 3rd international conference on Digital Interactive Media in Entertainment and Arts (DIMEA ‘08). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 343-350.

[MoereOffenhuber2009] Vande Moere, Andrew, Offenhuber, Dietmar (2009). Beyond Ambient Display: A Contextual Taxonomy of Alternative Information Display. In International Journal of Ambient Computing and Intelligence, IJACI 1(2), p. 39-46.

[StSoMi2009] Stocker, Sommerer, Mignonneau. Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau (2009.) Interactive Art Research. Springer Verlag, 2009.

[Ars2010] Stocker, Gerfried; Schöpf, Christine (2009). Ars Electronica 2009 – Human Nature. Exhibition catalogue, Hatje Cantz, 2010.

[ISEA2011] Aceti ,Dr. Lanfranco (2012). ISEA2011 Istanbul Uncontainable. In the 17th International Symposium on Electronic Art, LEA 18(5).

[SaYaIn2012] Furi Sawaki, Kentaro Yasu, and Masahiko Inami (2012). flona: development of an interface that implements lifelike behaviors to a plant. In Proceedings of the 9th international conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment (ACE’12), Anton Nijholt, Teresa Romão, and Dennis Reidsma (Eds.). Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, 557-560.

[HaLai2013] Haapoja, Terike; Laitinen, Antti (2013). Falling Trees. Exhibition catalogue, 55 International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia, 2013.

  1. admin
    June 22nd, 2014 at 14:15 | #1

    Despite I excluded algae from my research on Artistic Human Plant Interfaces the project Algaerium Bioprinter by Marin Sawa holds a strong relation to the above introduced printing approaches. Her artwork was presented at exhibition En Vie – Alive in Paris.

  2. admin
    August 11th, 2014 at 18:11 | #2

    The plant based installation “Years” (2011) by Bartholomäus Traubeck combines the principles of Dendrochronology with a modified turntable. The result is a translation of the visual ring data to an acoustic classical soundscape. Based on these visual patterns this artwork can be assigned to the first cluster “marker” approach. The data is stored inside natural object itself like it is implemented in the Leaf++ project.

  3. admin
    August 11th, 2014 at 18:46 | #3

    The project “Breathing Plant” (2014) by Jeongyongho applies kinetic gestures to a plant. The up and down movements of the soil question the plant’s breathing abilities compared to the human breathing. This kind of artwork can be determined to the cluster plant display and holds similarities to the above mentioned projects “Tsunagari kan – Family Plant” (2002-2005), “Flona” (2012), and “Mediated Body of Plants” (2012).

  1. June 2nd, 2014 at 17:46 | #1
  2. June 2nd, 2014 at 17:54 | #2
  3. June 2nd, 2014 at 17:55 | #3
  4. June 14th, 2014 at 12:14 | #4
  5. June 15th, 2014 at 00:08 | #5
  6. June 15th, 2014 at 00:23 | #6
  7. June 15th, 2014 at 22:26 | #7
  8. June 15th, 2014 at 22:37 | #8