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Seedling | Personal indoor food harvesting system

Goal: Personal indoor food harvesting system with user-defined climate parameters
Project: Grad Thesis project at ITP, Tisch school of the arts, New York University, Self-initiated
Duration: 14 Weeks
Team Size: One/ Myself
Role: User research, Prototypes, Interface Design, Industrial Design, Visual Design, Video production
Tools: Arduino, Wood & metal workshop, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe AfterEffects

Outcome: Successful thesis defense  at NYU with proof-of-concept system and 3 yields of crops. Currently in touch with a few Indian non-profits and ventures to see how it could help society.

Seedling is a personal food harvesting system that lets you grow your own vegetables. It is a modular indoor greenhouse equipped with hydroponics, a microcontroller, sensors and actuators with which you can control the climate parameters best suited for your plants.

Future holds spectacular reforms in the ecosystems based around our daily needs. Food, the most basic need of the population, is currently undergoing some interesting experiments enabled by technology. With constraints on farming resources, food production and lifestyle are largely affecting each other, and technology is playing a key role in food production. Seedling is a personal food harvesting system that lets you grow your own vegetables. It is a modular indoor greenhouse equipped with microcontroller, sensors and actuators with which one can control climate parameters best suited for the plants. The audience is the set of people who would love to experiment and see how food production could be made more personal and customizable, and how it would impact our lifestyle in future.

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Seedling is a hydroponic system placed in a small greenhouse with controlled climate. In order for plants to grow and reach their full genetic potential it is necessary to provide right amount of nutrients, water and air at the right time- this is the fundamental goal of farming. Hydroponic system allows the right proportion of these supplies at the right time, to grow plants indoor without using traditional large scale infrastructural elements such as land, soil, irrigation and pest control. Hydroponics is growing plants with gravel, liquid or other medium with added nutrients but without soil. Roots are exposed directly to the nutrients solution and air bubbles, therefore offering a controlled environment in terms of what we feed to the plants.

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The plants are grown by monitoring four climate parameters: Temperature and Carbon dioxide levels of the greenhouse box, and pH level and nutrients dissolved in water. Following is a batch of plants I grew with this system:

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The Design Process

An advantage of doing this in academic structure was that I could chalk out a thesis project plan and stick to it.

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We need to talk about future of food and farms, because of several reasons listed below:

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I started looking at how farming as a system can be redefined by taking into account the users, interactions, and cultural factors related to it.

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There is an ongoing research at several academic institutions as well as startups that are emerging in this landscape, and I got in touch with many of them.

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I tested my first hydroponic system with incoming students at NYU at a quick-and-dirty show at Tisch school of the arts, and the idea was received really well. People showed interest in indoor farming and use of technology in producing their own food, which motivated me to take this further.

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I identified three different user groups and wanted to see the overlap between these groups at Q&D show: 1. People who participate in gardening &/or farming, 2. People who follow a precise diet by carefully avoiding certain foods (GMOs, frozen foods, meat, chemically processed foods etc.) or those who carefully consume certain foods (organic, fresh, vegan foods etc.), and 3. People who identify themselves as makers, DIY enthusiasts, nerds, explorers.

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Almost all visitors (around 15) belonged to group #3 of makers and DIY enthusiasts. This was somewhat expected because of the settings of the exhibition- most visitors were aware of the nature of projects. To me the most interesting observation was that most of them either had a previous or ongoing experience with gardening, or were extremely careful about food they buy from markets. There was hardly anyone who belonged exclusively to group #3. This was the most important takeaway from the show. I interacted with people who buy only from farmers’ markets (5 persons in 15), people who are vegans (2 in 15- not a small factor), and people who maintain plants around their apartment/ workplace (9 in 15). I met at least 6 people who belonged to all 3 groups (indoor gardeners or farmers, loyal customers of farmers’ markets, and makers/DIY enthusiasts). In my understanding, this number presents a good evidence that people in urban settings are interested in indoor farming that is experimental in nature and promises fresh food with great quality. Many said curious & inspiring things about the platform, such as

“I’d like to have this in my apartment”

“Will it grow plants like tomatoes, eggplant, strawberries?”

“I like its bright purple appearance!”

“Can I make it into a smaller version to grow just one plant?”

“Can I make a bigger model to grow a full farm in my apartment?”

“What are the energy figures?”

“What’s the cost of building this? Can I buy it from you once it is in production stage?”

“It can also support fish or other life forms in the water container.”

“I’ll love to club this with my little garden.”

“Automate it! I often forget to water my plants!”

“Please please don’t make a smartphone-operated IoT product. I’m sick of cellphone notifications from my door knob, microwave, PS4, and bike.”

“Please make a smartphone-operated IoT product! I’ll love to take care of my plants via my cellphone.”

“I once went on a road trip and tasted bananas grown organically by some random farmer. That day I noticed how significantly different it feels to eat something fresh without any pesticides and chemicals, and I decided to buy only and only from farmers’ market.”

“Indoor farms are like pets. Some prefer smaller, some want huge ones.”

“I tried building a hydroponic system once, but it failed.”

“I once harvested from hydroponic system, but the once-fascinating purple light was so irritating that I dismantled everything after the first yield.”

“I tried it once but without any sensors- would love to see where you take it from here!”

“My boyfriend loves gardening, I don’t. But it’s my job to regularly remind him to water the plants. I notify, he acts. The plants would die if just one of us tries to takes care of them!”

For the interface, I earlier had a bunch of exciting ideas such as pushing the data to cloud and monitoring (and possibly controlling) the parameters remotely from smart devices (using RaspberryPi – NodeJS – Heroku – html/css), but from user studies and listening to startups around this domain, I learned that users need to look at their plants and not screens. IoT is delightful, but not essentially useful in all scenarios. This was perhaps the greatest observation and takeaway from this project.

I studied hydroponics in depth by reading and following an excellent book, How to hydroponics by Roberto Keith. Thereon the design process became about connecting the user to various stages of plant growth and parameters that affect the growth, by offering an interface:

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This interface provides real-time data and user needs to actively participate in monitoring the data and taking care of their plants. Each species has a range that is best suited for ideal growth to its full genetic potential, and user needs to maintain the four numbers in that range. I designed cards for people who are just getting familiar to hydroponics and indoor farming. Cards have instructions, list of components, and ideal climate range for typical plants such as spinach and lettuce.

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I experimented the most with lettuce and spinach varieties and my most successful batch produced three bowls of salads in 4 weeks.

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I love how this project connects back to people in solving their needs with help of technology. The explorations and latest prototype are currently installed at NYU for visitors to explore and even eat vegetables from it!