Researchers have developed an eco-friendly electronic device that helps the user emotionally because it has a living organism.
With the introduction of new technologies in the market, the old versions become trash and thrown out. This disposability leads to increased levels of electronic waste—the fastest growing category of waste, with 40 million tons generated annually.
Jasmine Lu and Pedro Lope, researchers at the University of Chicago wondered if they could change that volatile relationship by letting go of the tools—literally. They used an electrically conductive single-cell organism known as a “slime mold,” to create a watch that only works when the organism is healthy, requiring the user to provide it with food and care.
The watches were designed and manufactured by Lu to tell the time and measure the wearer’s heart rate. However, the secondary function depends on the health and unique characteristics of Physarum polycephalum, a species of slime mold sometimes called “the blob,” due to its rapid growth, durability and unique ability to solve the maze.
The organism is placed in an enclosure on the watch, and the user must regularly feed it a mixture of water and oats to stimulate its growth. When the slime mold reaches the other side of the enclosure, it forms an electrical circuit that activates the heart rate monitor function. The organism can also enter a dormant state when not fed, allowing days, months, or even years later.
The researchers conducted a study on five participants who wore the watch for two weeks. During the first week, users cared for the slime mold until the heart rate monitoring was done. Then for the second week, the researchers asked the participants to stop feeding the organism, causing it to dry up and disrupt the heart rate function.
The researchers found a high level of attachment to the watch, with some users saying it felt like a pet—even naming it, or putting their partner in charge of feeding it when they are sick. It also describes the emotional response of users when they are asked to leave the organism, expressing guilt or even sadness.
Reference: Jasmine Lu et al, Integrating Living Organisms into Devices to Implement Care-Based Interactions, The 35th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (2022). DOI: 10.1145/3526113.3545629