This Smart Device Is A Living Organism That Changed The Users Interaction

Computer Science researchers at the University of Chicago’s Human-Computer Integration Lab have shared the results of a study that investigated how physical care for a living organism embedded in their smart device as a functional component of the device could change the user-device relationship. The researchers presented the study at the 35th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology.

Electronic devices are one of the largest categories of consumer waste. In 2018, e-waste accounted for 58% of all global waste generated by consumers. By the close of 2022, it’s predicted that more than 164 million e-waste materials will be produced, which is expected to increase by 37% annually through 2030. According to Statista, global e-waste contains around $60 billion of raw materials such as gold, palladium, silver, and copper. However, just 17 percent of global e-waste is documented to be collected and properly recycled each year.

Ph.D. student Jasmine Lu and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Pedro Lopes wanted to know if they could change the relationship between the user and device if they could bring smart devices to life.

To test this theory, Lu and Lopes built a smartwatch that runs on Physarum Polycephalum, a species of slime mold. Slime mold, also known as the blob, has 720 sexes and is known for its rapid growth, resilience and problem solving – like finding the shortest way to exit a maze and anticipating changes in its environment, according to biologists at France’s National Center for Scientific Research.

Lu designed the slime mold-powered smartwatch to tell time and measure the user’s heart rate. But the second function, measuring the user’s heart rate, would only work if the slime mold was healthy, and that came down to the person wearing the device.

Lu put the slime mold organism into an enclosure attachment connected to the smartwatch. The user had to feed it water and oats to induce growth regularly. According to the researchers, when the slime mold reaches the other side of the enclosure, it forms an electrical circuit that conducts power to activate the sensor, which triggers the heart rate monitor functionality. The organism can also remain dormant when it is not fed. The researchers say this allows for revival days, months, or possibly years later.

The researchers then tested how the living device affected the wearer’s attitude towards technology and if it would change the traditional one-way usage into a mutually beneficial partnership.

In the study, participants wore the slime mold-integrated smartwatch for nine to 14 days. In a statement, Lu said people were forced to think about their relationship to devices in many interesting ways. “When discussing their experiences with normal smartwatches, Fitbits, or other wearable devices, people said they just used it for an explicit purpose.”

“And with this device, it felt more like a bi-directional relationship to them because they had to care for it,” said Lu in a statement. “They also had some sort of attachment to it because it’s living, and they felt like they couldn’t throw it away or just put it in the closet.”

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