Organic Primitives

A large portion of the chemical and biological processes underlying our everyday experience remains imperceptible to us. Be it the contents of rain, the ocean, or human tears, chemical codes mediate interactions between organic systems from the environment to our bodies and food.

As humans, we understand information mediated by our senses—through textures, symbols, odors, and tastes. In order to design for a wider array of sensory modalities in representing fluid-based information and enable user interaction with these systems, we have developed Organic Primitives. It is a new medium for transforming objects into information displays. Chemical input is converted into human senses through a set of color, odor, and form changing materials.


Transforming Objects into Information Displays

A variety of prototypes was built to demonstrate how objects can sense contents in fluids and change color, odor, and form to communicate with users. Among the examples: an umbrella that bleeds in the presence of acid rain, communicating that the rainwater from the sky is damaging it; an apple that tells you it's been contaminated during transport, by producing red spots to communicate its toxicity; a compostable fork that refuses to pick up your food when you've eaten too much, by wilting in form after a duration of time; shape programmable pasta that curls into new shapes when you introduce different sauces; and a shirt that refreshes new designs when you apply a new perfume. These interactive objects were constructed by integrating color, odor, and form changing material primitives with a design language and semiotics to communicate a variety of context-specific messages.   

Interactive objects integrated with Organic Primitives utilizes semiotic signs of toxic mushrooms, blood, water mist, and wilted flower to communicate messages of toxicity, pain, refreshment, and error.

Interactive objects integrated with Organic Primitives utilizes semiotic signs of toxic mushrooms, blood, water mist, and wilted flower to communicate messages of toxicity, pain, refreshment, and error.


Re-Engineering Food into Smart Materials

In order to make this technology accessible, we ensured Organic Primitives could be synthesized through the use of compounds commonly found in food. Much of what we think of as food is also made up of organisms—with a collection of molecules that have evolved to respond to a number of stimuli. Currently, the material primitives are driven by pH signals in a fluid. pH is utilized as a model to demonstrate how molecular-scale phenomena can be brought from materials into applications for interaction with a range of organic systems. Our future work will seek to expand upon the library of primitives for sensing.

The color, odor, and form-changing material primitives were synthesized by doping food-grade biopolymers with organic compounds of anthocyanin, vanillin, and chitosan. The material primitives can be combined and are able to output a spectrum of colors and different degrees of shape deformation, and they can switch from odorous to non-odorous states. Through a design methodology, we call Molecular Design Interactions, this research demonstrates how molecular-scale phenomena can be brought to application and user interaction with chemical and biological systems for environmental sensing, food interaction, and sustainable design. By elucidating the chemical world around us through these subtle, overlooked everyday interactions with our food, environment, and bodies, we aspire to instill a sense of wonder and agency in the protection of these organic systems.

These implementations were a result of a three-year research investigation beginning in 2014 on food materials for sensing and display. This work is currently patent pending and was published in Association for Computing Machinery SIGCHI. It was granted a Best Paper Award at the CHI 2017 conference. CHI is considered to be the most prestigious publication venue in the field of Human-Computer Interaction and is among the top-ranked in computer science, with an acceptance rate of 23 percent. Our best paper award signifies that it was ranked in the top one percent of all submissions in the SIGCHI 2017 conference, where 24 were chosen out of more than 2400 submissions.

Team: Emma Vargo, Noa Machover, Serena Pan, Yasuaki Kakehi

Publication: Organic Primitives: Synthesis and Design of pH-Reactive Materials using Molecular I/O for Sensing, Actuation, and Interaction. In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '17). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 989-1000. DOI: