Posted by Rob Knies

Kati London

Many people talk to their plants. But what if those plants were able to talk back?

That’s the premise behind Botanicalls, a project to enable communications between plants and people. A sensor network provides the flora the ability to call and text people to request assistance, such as “I need water,” or “Not sure if it was you, but someone gave me a drink—I feel great!”

It’s a fascinating, precocious venture, one featured on the TODAY show on May 7 as part of a discussion about home technologies. It’s also a window into the work of Kati London, one of the driving forces behind Botanicalls and the newest member of FUSE Labs at Microsoft Research.

London, formerly executive producer and head of product for Zynga New York and vice president of Area/Code Games, has been attracting notice—in 2010, she was named to MIT Technology Review’s TR35 list of top innovators under the age of 35, and in 2011, Fast Company included her in its list of The 100 Most Creative People in Business.

“I admire Kati London because she uses humor and play to imagine a world where we are better together,” says Lili Cheng, general manager of FUSE Labs. “Kati’s Botanicalls project is a great example. It first makes you laugh, and then it makes you think—about how the everyday objects around you—your houseplants—can better collaborate and communicate together. We are thrilled she’s joining Microsoft Research!”

London and Cheng have known each other for quite a while, and the more the former learned about FUSE, the more intrigued she became.

“I have always been excited by the work that’s coming out of FUSE—experimental, playful things with an eye toward the future of user social experiences,” London says. “I’ve known Lili for a long time, and I’ve always been impressed by her. When the opportunity presented itself, it was hard to turn down—being around people who are excellent at executing and who cultivate an environment to experiment and test new hypotheses is something that’s important to me. That’s something that’s possible here.”

Peter Lee, corporate vice president of Microsoft Research USA, welcomes that creative bent.

“Kati London is a great technologist,” Lee says, “but her work never is just about technology. Some of her games inspire social activism, while others are wacky and playful. This combination of cutting-edge technology, social conscience, and creativity is a great basis for innovation. I’m incredibly excited to have her join us.”

As London states, “My background is pretty varied, and I work hard to keep it that way.” She has always sought simple ways to interact with complexity and make technology useful for ends other than itself. As an undergrad, she studied painting and industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design, but her work history is colorful; she has spent time working as a horticulturist, she has curated cultural programs and conferences, and she ran the first online art auctions. About 10 years ago, she turned her attention to gaming, hardware, and interactive technologies to explore the possibilities they offer for large-scale participatory events and persistent engagement.

“A lot of what I’ve done is combine diverse or disconnected networks in new ways to create new kinds of interaction,” says London, who will work out of the Microsoft Research New York City offices, “Sometimes that’s sticking a sensor in a plant connected to a mesh network of other plants and giving them access to human communication protocols, such as using a telephone and a human voice or Twitter. Sometimes, it’s designing games for three economically and culturally diverse ZIP Codes and trying to get people to connect with each other who wouldn’t do so otherwise, using a real-world currency.

“I’m interested in the ways in which people engage when they encounter diversity and how new technologies can affect that experience; I’m interested in entertainment, and games for engagement, rather than escape: how we can use these tools to make us better participants in life and tune in, instead of tuning out—playfully.”

Part of that playfulness involves an element of surprise.

“I look for opportunities to create playful interfaces that are disarming,” London says, “particularly at the human scale, taking big data and translating it into some form of interaction that is relevant to the person or group that’s interacting with it, on their terms, so that it’s really accessible and simple.

“And, oftentimes, some level of surprise can be transgressive. A good example is a lot of the work being done with autonomous objects and cities, things that ‘do things for us.’ It’s like flipping something on its end: It disarms us, gets us to engage in different ways, and empowers different conversations to happen at different scales in our world.”

That’s Kati London, @picklesnumber1 on Twitter, from whom you’ll certainly be hearing more. It should be enlightening to track her FUSE-focused progress.

“You can extrapolate from these things—human scale, playful, surprising or transgressive, and civic engagement,” she concludes. “Somewhere in those spaces is where I’m interested in playing. I’m excited.”