Weird tech: Vegetation taps VoIP to voice its needs

Botanicalls outfits office plants with open source governance and telephony solution

Current studies indicate that working with or in proximity of plant life increases productivity and inspires a more upbeat demeanor. In fact, horticultural therapy has become a common component of the rehabilitation and coping regimens of persons afflicted with cancer or autism, for example.

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But for IT departments looking to harness the feel-good productivity power of plants without distracting patients, er, staff from their primary IT duties, there's Botanicalls, a VoIP-based service that enables plants to phone their human partners as needed and describe their tending needs in detail.

At the core of this "Feed me, Seymour" architecture are a half-dozen open source tools, including Digium's Asterisk, the open source VoIP platform that ultimately lends voice to plants' pleas.

Here's how Botanicalls works: Light and moisture sensors on the plant communicate to an embedded system programmed in Arduino, an open source electronics prototyping platform for hardware and software. When a plant's microcontroller determines that the plant needs to phone for help, it makes use of Xbee and Xport open source RF communication equipment to contact a PHP script with the plant's ID number and specific need. The PHP script then packages information about the specific plant stored in the database and passes it on to Asterisk. The call is placed to the plant's caregiver by Asterisk, which plays an audio file in the “voice” of the plant expressing its need.

"It's so exciting to see how people can use our technology so creatively," says Mark Spencer, CTO of Digium, and Asterisk's creator.

Asterisk’s VoIP chops, traditionally used for automated call processing for call center or queuing applications, has attracted some innovative applications through the years, including a bicycle-powered phone. Few, however, are as eccentric as this one, which opens the door to stew of emergent vegetableware solutions, not to mention the possibility of a burgeoning social-networking-fueled MyPot community platform.

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