It is now possible to control a computer by touching a house plant – touching the plant in different places can even cause the computer to do different things. While using a mouse or touchscreen still might be more intuitive, Disney Research’s experimental Botanicus Interactus system does hint at what could be possible down the road.

The system incorporates a single electrode, placed in the soil of a real or artificial potted plant. Using Swept Frequency Capacitive Sensing (SFCS) technology, it is then able to determine not only if the plant is being touched, but also to estimate where on its “body” that touch is taking place. It can additionally detect the nature of the touch (a stroke, a tap, etc.) or even if a person merely has their finger close to the plant.

SFCS works on the same principle as the capacitive touch sensing used in touchscreens, but instead of detecting electrical signals at a single frequency, it is able to monitor a wide range of frequencies. Botanicus Interactus’ machine-learning algorithms subsequently allow it to associate particular changes in particular frequencies with finger touches to different parts of the plant.

“Computing is rapidly fusing with our dwelling places and, thanks to touchpads and Microsoft Kinect, interaction with computers is increasingly tactile and gestural,” said Ivan Poupyrev, senior research scientist at Disney Research, Pittsburgh. “Still, this interaction is limited to computing devices. We wondered — what if a broad variety of everyday objects around us could interact with us?”

A garden of real and artificial plants utilizing the technology is currently on display at the SIGGRAPH Emerging Technology conference in Los Angeles. More details on Botanicus Interactus are available in the video below, as are examples of how the system could be used.