Project Review : 2

Several key parts of the project have solidified over the last month – some conceptual, some practical.

  • I have a palette of differently coloured substrate discs which show the range of colours
  • A tower of solid substrate is still growing in my workshop – its almost one metre tall.
  • A reliable mechanical design sits on the drawing-board – the squeezing, mixing, pushing and extruding processes of moving the substrate are now covered.
  • The final part of the idea – the programming – is now under the spotlight.


The Tower and the Coloured Substrate.

The basic idea is that an artificial entity builds a tower of mud to express itself. Each new layer of the earth-starch substrate is a deliberate colour and texture – chosen by the chip to express how it experiences its surroundings.

rings of substrate

I have begun to create a palette of colours which can give some degree of insight into the options available to it.

The tower itself is built up from rings of substrate. Each new ring is extruded from the top of the tower by a device that is concealed  inside the hollow tower.

An internal telescoping cylindrical structure lifts the extrusion-head higher as each new level ring is made. The process is controlled by a motorised element hidden under the supporting platform.

Differently tinted substrates are blended in the base before being moved up through the supported tube to the top by a peristaltic pump (which I am currently building).

While I have been designing the machine part I have also been developing a dummy tower manually to illustrate the idea and to test several key aspects of the project: the colour, the growing time of the seeds, and how the composition of the substrate can express the mood of the device in a meaningful way (colour, life, smell).

Manually created tower - began April 13

The  tower has been growing for two weeks at a variable rate – some substrates dry faster than others because of the different properties of the clays / sand / fibrous parts and the starch.

It isn’t sensible to add more than 3 levels per day and for that reason I can definitively say that the maximum vertical growth is 8 – 10 cm / day. In theory it can grow to a height of 2 metres in 3 weeks. I am testing the maximum possible height with this current tower.

This can be seen alongside the drawings I posted recently.

Grass sprouting from the base of the tower


The Code

So far the idea is that a piece of Java code spawns an artificial organism via a motorised Arduino held in the base and a few buckets of mud  – a ‘personality‘ of five mood extremes.

The chip experiences its surroundings via sensors that provide it with streams of constantly changing data (the exact details of this process are uncertain).

Values are received from sensors, these values are interpreted by a layer of logic whose preferences define its personality.

The responses it has to these evolving input streams determine how much of each tinted (and sometimes scented) substrate is added to the mix and therefore what colour each level of the tower will be. A ‘happy’ level might use rich-looking and sweet-smelling and full of sprouting seeds; a ‘sad’ level could be partially devoid of life and a pale colour; an ‘anxious’ level might be light yellow and smell sour – strange fungi or mould sprout from this level after a short time.

NB – I am making a piece that is ‘shitting itself into existence’ as Ellie recently pointed out. Its quite fun creating a spectrum of meaning with a machine and some poo.

NNB – Scented substrate means a mix of the normal sand-mud-starch mix with dried spices (like turmeric) and herbs (like lavender), not scent oils or extracts).


Here are a list of previous titles from the ‘Project Proposals’ to date. Its an interesting snapshot of the evolution of the underlying idea and motivations.

Here are 9 project proposals – each one building on the previous. I will illustrate the journey by quoting the titles of project proposals.

  1. November 2011 – Fostering empathic connections towards the natural environment using smart-mechanical structures as the gateway.
  2. March 2012 – A mechanical-game object provides an experience that builds an intimate connection (or memory) between people and the natural environment.
  3. May 2012 – A game is played by a group of people. The game is monitored and influenced by an Ai. Data from the gameplay is interpreted by the Ai and used to design a grid Garden comprised of a mixture of materials – plant seeds, insect eggs, clay, toffee, wax and iron powder. A small walking bot creates this space on a piece of prepared land.
  4. May 2012 – The basic idea of the project is to mix technology with wilderness. The cubes are mysterious – their form is smooth and polished, but they are made from natural materials and contain life. They are made by a smart machine.
  5. September 2012 – A six-legged wooden machine walks around a prepared space producing small white cubes and positioning them with care. Soon the cubes burst into life and their perfect geometry dissolves into a mess of green and black. The entire process is captured as a time-lapse video.
  6. January  2013 – No title for this project update – but I was beginning to question several key concepts that had defined the project until then. Namely – the walking robot and a single ‘perfect’ material, although the cube form was still central. Possibly a fixed-location production-line continuously process cubes.
  7. February 2013 – No Title: A tower structure is built by an immobile machine. The machine is hidden from view and only the emerging tower is seen. The structure is made from a material that resembles wet sand – actually it is sand, soil, starch and seed. Grass grows from the structure.
  8. March 2013 – No Title: [there is..] a hole of about 2″ diameter. Up through the hole pokes a rotating disc – as it rotates it rises, apparently supported by the organic matter that it extrudes. Within several days the tower begins to crack and small fissures run throughout the structure, from these gaps tiny bright green hairs burst out.
  9. April 2013 – No Title: Layers of dirt rise from the ground into a tall, thin tower – each layer is a different shade. After a week the tower is almost a metre tall. Out-of-sight is the chip which controls this growth – each layer of the tower reflects a mood that the chip experiences in response to its environment.



Leave a Reply