If grass could talk when you touched it, what would it say?
For our midterm in Physical Computing, Sue Ngo, Christine Nguyen and I decided to explore the ability of the natural world to relax and reconnect us. The project was conceived around a swath of wheat grass whose seductive charms are indisputable: you can’t help but want to run your fingers through it. Just what this act of touch would trigger, and how, became the subject of many meetings and sample prototypes over the last three weeks, resulting in our patch of zen grass. Zen grass allows you to play and control a mix of soothing sounds simply by running your hand through it.
How does this work?
Embedded in the grass are five handmade digital switches whose wires mimic the position and behavior of individual grass blades. When you brush your hand over one, the wire closes the circuit, triggering serial communication to the computer. We’ve used the Minim library and written code in Processing to receive this information and play specific sounds when each of the switches are activated. The clips of sound are short enough to allow different variations of music.
Like most first-years, we were over ambitious in our first media controller designs. With the ambiguous assignment of creating a physical interface that controls media, our hardest task came in the planning process. In our initial conversations, our group agreed on the idea of using a physical controller to connect more with nature, but just what “nature” meant to us stayed quite vague while we explored different prototypes.
The first controller we built used 5 sensors (a pressure sensor, a photocell, a push-button switch, and 2 piano wire switches) to mimic the gardening process. We had 4 stations set up where you could plant a seed in a pot with potting soil (triggering the pressure sensor), followed by a station to “feed” the seedling with water and sunlight (triggered with photocell and push-button), resulting in a beautiful swath of grass that you could run your hands through (containing switches). When we sat down with all of our working sensors, though, we wondered if our audience would really take a feeling of connection away with them. (Below is a clip of us testing our sensors with a sketch in Processing).
In the end, we scaled our design back to our initial idea–the wheat grass– and decided to incorporate sounds traditionally associated with meditation and yoga (Tibetan singing bowls, chanting, bells). We also worked to present the grass in a simple, yet appealing way, creating a wooden box to contain the grass with a compartment for the electronics. The final product is a piece of grass to be proud of!