Our focus for “Organic Cinema” was on how to get the electrical activity inside of plants as our main source of data. This gives us insight into processes happening inside the plant. We can use these signals to see its reaction to its environment and witness certain actions as a response.
Our goal was to create such device so that anyone who is enthusiastic about it would be able to build, copy, improve and experiment with this device; it is easy to use and build; and it is affordable. In order to achieve this we decided to release every version of our device under an open hardware / open source licence, that will be well documented and easy to reproduce. We like to encourage everyone to play with it and possibly even improve upon it!
Our main challenges up to date:
How to amplify the signal?
How to reduce the noise (i.e electromagnetic interference, mains hum, etc )level to as little as possible?
How to filter out the the parts of the signals that we are interested in?
How to keep the device as small and simple to build as possible?
How to make it transmit its data from everywhere in the world?
Our main objective when working on the “Organic Cinema” was a question of how to acquire the data from plants in such a way, so we can learn about processes happening inside them in real time and thus understand a bit more about their “existence”. The first device we reached for (after some initial research) was “the Spikerbox” by Backyard Brain. The Spikerbox could measure action potentials from the legs of cockroaches. We assumed that if it could do that for cockroaches, it might be possible to use it to sense these same potentials in plants too. Our first version of Organic Cinema was created around this device.
The Spikerbox however proved to be difficult, mainly because while testing and experimenting it we couldn’t be sure whether what we were sensing was signal from the plant or just a noise. We have contacted people in Backyard Brains and consulted couple of scientists and also we used it to exhibit the first prototype of “Organic
Cinema”, we have learnt that this device cannot sense tiny signals which we were looking for and also it couldn’t eliminate the noise. It also was made for detecting immediate reactions (such as movement of the cockroach leg), while plants reactions mainly happen being quite delayed from the initial stimulus.
For the next edition of the “Organic Cinema” we realised that we need more in-depth knowledge and help from someone with real experience in the field of electrophysiology of plants.
We met Prof. Bert van Duijn - a scientist working at the university of Leiden in the field of electrophysiology of plants who gave us some insights into how his laboratory equipment and what to do with it as well as to data logs (so at least we now knew what to look for and how to define a “spike”) . However the deadline of a new exhibition was approaching and so we had continued to search for some ready made solution which we either could buy or construct ourselves. There has not been much luck with our quest and we slowly came to realise that the only solution would be to develop our own sensing equipment. Prof. Bert van Duijn was kind enough to provide us with some electrodes from his laboratory - very different to those in the Spikerbox, to start our experiments.
We felt that it was important that we make a device that was accessible, small and easy to use, with the idea of releasing it as an open hardware device that everyone can build and use themselves. Thus Arduino shield was our first choice as it was widely available and also easy to implement. That was the beginning of the adventure which we could describe as “taking the laboratory out in the real world”. What we wanted was a device which not only function properly in the sterile, clean and safe environment of a science laboratory, but it could be used anywhere where plants were present - urban squares, fields, gardens, forests - places where plants thrived and live in their natural normal habitats.
We came across a group called PLEASED - international scientific research group who were developing exactly the device which we wanted to have. They have released schematics for an arduino shield on their website as a result of their initial testing which allowed us to get a good starting point
for our own device. We built this circuit and run some tests with it but we have noticed that there were some uncertainties and errors, a very noisy output amongst others. Although we used this circuit on couple of occasions we still weren’t happy with that, and so we went back to the “drawing board”.
We met Adrian Godwin - an electrical engineer who had worked with artists before and who was very willing to help us. With Adrian as an advisor we developed the circuit that formed the basis for the 3rd installment of Organic Cinema. Although that board was much more successful than all previous attempts, it still picked up too much noise which made it difficult to determine action potentials spikes. We also knew that in order to find a meaning of one set of data we need to put it in the context of at least one more set of data. In other words we needed another kinds of data next to the electrical activity from the plant to determine the meaning of that particular electrical activity.
For example different colors of light waves control different kinds of processes within the plant. As that data is naturally easily available we decided to add to our device a color sensor. That allowed us to cross reference the data coming from the color sensors (so we know what color within the spectrum was present at the certain time) with the - at times somewhat noisy - data of the electrical activity inside the plant. It was a first time when we could attempt to interpret the action and variation potential and it was the first time that it worked quite well.
We finally felt that we were getting closer to achieve our aspiration for this device. We knew that although it functioned quite well in certain environments, it is still too unstable to provide a clear signal from plants and definitely not ready to be used in situ, outside the lab, in noisy (in terms of electromagnetic, radio and other waves) urban environments. We yet must test it in the area such as a field or a forest which has much lower level of such noise.
After concluding “Organic Cinema v 3.0” and after gaining all that almost 18 month worth experience, together with Adrian Godwin we are in the process of a final redevelopment of our device. Watch this space for the new release and more soon!