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Black thumb? Your computer can help

Disruptors: PlantSense's flower-shaped sensor tells you why your plants are dying - one example of how to use the world around us as a database.

By Michael Copeland, senior writer
Last Updated: October 28, 2008: 12:27 PM ET

SAN FRANCISCO (Fortune) -- We have been taught to keep our electronic gadgets out of the sun, dirt and rain. So it is a surprise to come across a startup that wants its sophisticated gear subjected to everything nature can throw at it, at least within the confines of your yard.

Founded by Matthew Glenn and David Wilkins, San Francisco-based startup PlantSense aims to harness the power of your home PC and the Internet to make everyone a master gardener. The first step is to place the company's EasyBloom device in the dirt or any place you might want to grow a plant.

Inside the cheery, plastic daisy - it looks a lot like an electric toothbrush - are a number of sensors that measure solar radiation, moisture and temperature over a 24-hour period. You take that data, download it to your PC via a handy USB, and the information from your front yard is then mapped against a Web-based database of plants. Given your locale (based on zip code) PlantSense will come back with types of plants that will work for specific parts of your yard, inside your house or any place you want something to grow.

"You buy a plant at a nursery and the tag it comes with gives you vague guidance about what environment it will grow best in - like partly sunny. No one knows what that means," says Glenn. "We tell you exactly what plants will grow in an exact spot in your yard. It's like gardening with a scalpel."

That scalpel can be too sharp at times. During the company's beta testing period over the past few months, the device recommended that a gardener in a hot part of Arizona plant moisture- and cool-climate-loving blueberries. For the 24-hour period that the EasyBloom measured, you could have grown blueberries, but only until the weather got hot and sunny again. Needless to say, the PlantSense team changed their algorithms to make sure an entire growing season is considered when making recommendations, not just a snapshot.

Mining for information

On its own, PlantSense is a big enough idea. Gardeners in the United States spend about $40 billion annually on plants and assorted shovels, buckets and gloves to get things to grow. About half of that is spent on plants, one-third of which die. Outside the United States, gardening occupies even more time and money.

While the startup's EasyBloom attempts to solve a millennia old problem, it does it with a bleeding-edge technological approach that has more in common with the iPhone and Google than a wheelbarrow and the Farmer's Almanac. Rob Coneybeer, a partner with Silicon Valley venture capital firm Shasta Ventures describes what PlantSense is doing as part of the emerging physical web. "With cheap sensors and easy connectivity, companies like PlantSense are turning the physical world all around us into a database," Coneybeer says. "You are going to see it happen everywhere."

Glenn thinks of these databases in combination with sensing devices as emerging expert systems. With the proliferation of cheap, available sensor technology and easy access to the Web, you simply gather the data required, and then set it loose on whatever expert system you want to build.

Expert systems focused on health, your car or your house are obvious examples of areas that could fit into the physical web. Step on a scale and it maps your weight against what you ate, your weight loss goals, and your exercise regime. Start your car and it monitors performance and mileage, and makes suggestions depending on driving preferences. Your roof tells you there is a leak before it does thousands of dollars in damage.

We are sure to see many more of these physical web companies, and at a certain point some other company, probably Google, will start to index all this data being thrown off by plastic daisies and everything else that is being measured in the real world. To top of page

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