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Plants in urban environments: “Dead Tree Drops”

September 29th, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments


The previous project “Travelling plants” explored the possibilities of connecting digital communication technology with plants. People’s reaction emerged like expected, but the involvement of digital communication technology provides still some space for further experiments. Therefore, the new experiment named “Dead Tree Drop” connects and stores location-based digital data directly on a plant within an urban natural environment. In the course of this thesis the strong relationship between plant-based artwork and its environment were described before. For this reason plants can be associated with local characteristics. Moreover, humans like to stay and rest in natural environments, where they often like to read books and magazines. These initial conditions inspired me to create a physical interface for local-based digital information within natural urban environments.


Issues of digital location-based information services

Unfortunately, current implementations of location-based digital services hold several disadvantages. In earlier times when smart phones did not exist, information terminals were distributed across the cities for informing tourists about the area. Regrettably, information terminals are very limited in their content and cannot be customized by its users. Furthermore, they usually do not exist in natural human-friendly environments. In contrast to that, location-based services for smart phones are used everywhere, even in natural environments. Current smart phones provide a personal and customizable settings. Related to the mobile phone location, the data can be provided by an on-demand service or an automatic one. The location of the mobile phone is usually defined by the its sensors. Physical markers are often used by location-based services with the on-demand approach. These markers, a QR-Codes or RFID chip, links the physical object with the online service and requests the relevant data. Unfortunately, QR-Codes have the disadvantages that they are difficult to recognize for the camera due bad light conditions. The linkage with RFID technology does not have this problem, on the other hand only a few smart phones have the RFID sensor embedded. Beyond the conscious decision of the user to consume location-based information, many mobile applications provide location-based information on the ground of assumptions. They scan the mobile location via GPS sensor and suggest new information related to the new mobile phone location. If the information is really asked for by the user, it cannot be exactly determined. Even more, it is also questionable if it is the an appropiate moment when the information arrives. An audio-visual notification about new data income can be annoying on certain times. The biggest disadvantage of mobile phones with location-based services is the requirement of an internet connection. All these services for mobile phones do not store the data physically at their linked location; all data is stored physically at one place. This circumstance implies a second infrastructure, which means an ambient all time available mobile network and a server infrastructure. These both technologies consume a lot of electricity and have significant maintainence costs, even when it is not used. From a sustainable point of view, this is an unnecessary waste of energy.

The project “Dead Tree Drop” addresses these current issues with digital location based services. This public art project aims to combine the advantages of info terminals and mobile location-based information systems in one. Furthermore, efficient energy consumption is included in my proposed solution.


The interface design of a “Dead Tree Drop”

The description of the “Dead Tree Drop” interface is separated in four parts. The first part “culture” references to the embedded context of the object tree. The second part “design and ergonomic” deals with the physical shape of a tree stump. The transition from the second to the third part “human computer interaction and usability” is fluently. This third part explores the Human Computer Interaction between people and digital data. The last part presents the “technical” advantages and disadvantages of the USB flash drive.

Trees are omnipresent objects in a natural environment as well as in an urban environment. In our culture, trees are a symbol of power, consistency, protection and history. This attributes are often expressed in novels. In some of them the tree takes over the narrative role. For instance, the fictive character “Treebeard” in the novel “Lord of the Rings” (1954-1955) by J. R. R. Tolkien is an important source and connection to the past history of this world, but he also holds strong strength and protection skills. The tree as a storyteller exists in children’s stories, too. The fictive character “Robur” in the children story “Xanti” (1989) is a great example for this. A tree is not only in fictive stories an important connection to a historical context, also in our culture it is an important object and connection to the local history [KuUl2009][Lima2014]. Therefore, the tree is a very suitable physical object with an appropriate social context for our location-based interface. Trees exist so frequently in our environment that it would be impossible to remember which tree holds our digital location-based interface. Fortunately, tree stumps are less common. Especially in urban environments tree stumps exist in all kind of environments, from small to big sizes. This circumstance is useful for a location-based service interface, because it can be located in every natural setting, where people want to rest. Moreover, people still associate a tree stump with historical attributes a healthy tree holds. The roots with its fixed location and the visual recognizable tree-rings enable this connection.

A tree stump holds from a design and ergonomic view more advantages. First advantage is a tree stump is usually dead or it has at least dead parts. Elements can be added or adapted without the concerns of harm a living organism. Therefore a negative impact for the environment can be avoided more easily. These two conditions are important for fulfilling the requirements of the defensive approach as it was described earlier in chapter 4.1. The suggested solution embedds the USB flash drive directly in the wood of a tree stump. Obviously, it is still an artificial attachment to the tree, but carefully and harmonically integrated in its visual appearance, similar to the artwork “TV Garden” (1974-1978) from Nam June Paik [Bartel2001, page 105]. He attached TVs like blossoms or fruits to a tree. This project adapted his approach and added the USB flash drive in form of a little broken branch to the tree. A hole were drilled in the size of the USB flash drive and it  got fixed to the tree. Only the plug was visible and could be recognized by an accurate look on the tree stump. Another great advantage of the tree stump is its unique shape. They are easy to remember and to distinguish from each other. An additional sculpture feature of tree stumps are the roots. Roots are visually and noticeable connected with the earth and its location. This visual appearance creates a strong location-based metaphor to its place. The user will associate the interface immediately with a location-based characteristic. From an ergonomic point of view a tree stump provides a place for sitting or it can be used as table for the notebook. For this reason, a tree stump is a valuable physical and natural object to get in a comfortable position for consuming digital information.

In context of human computer interaction and computer science, the tree is used as a metaphor for navigating in hierarchical file systems. This screen-based user interface organizes the hierarchical data structure into branches, which is similar to the physical structure of tree branches. In relation to the “Dead Tree Drop” interface, this circumstance again is a great benefit. Users of the interface work with their familiar file browsing system, which is metaphorical compliant with the physical object tree. All the navigational process happens on the user’s private device. The interface operates very similar to the thin client strategy. The user connects to the interface, the USB flash drive, and uses the additional functionality within his/her personal device settings. Therefore the “Dead Tree Drop” is mentally and technically very easy accessible. Beyond the screen based user interface, the usage of a physical plug influences positively the human computer interaction, too. Instead of any marker technology the user connects physically his/her device trough cable to our interface. This physical connection emphasizes again the connection metaphor with its location and even more it serves an metaphorical design of being connected with a tree. If the user does not want to consume the information any more, the cable can be simply disconnected. The digital service has not to be turned off or deactivated, which is very often the case in other location-based mobile applications (e.g. foursquare).  In the exceptional case, if the user wants to enjoy the data at another place or just at another time, the interface allows copying the files to the user’s device.

The technical approach of working with a USB flash drive is strongly inspired by the urban art project “Dead Drops” (2010-2012) from Aram Bartholl [Bartholl2012, pages 58-61]. To show the appreciation for his work and to clarify the derivation from his art project his artwork name were included in the “Dead Tree Drop“ project name. From a technical point of view, the interface benefits from the same USB flash drive features as the “Dead Drop” does. That means, the interface is also able to store the data physically at its location. Moreover, present digital files in any format can be added or removed to the interface. No internet connection or other wireless technology is needed. Furthermore, the interface can be used without any additional power source. The electricity is provided by the connected device and it is only in use when the interface is on. These three features make it very eco-friendly and sustainable from an energy consumption perspective. One feature of the USB technology is in term of the current NSA spy scandal very interesting. The interface holds the characteristic of an anonymous usage. There exists no software or other tracking system that observes the personal use of the interface.


The distribution and the content

The project “Dead Tree Drop” is not only an interactive interface, it also provides information about the location. The goal of the project is to experience the history of a location in a new manner. Another aspect of the intention was to provide a digital place, where the neighborhood presents themself.  Therefore several “Dead Tree Drops” were created across Berlin, which are all close by the Landwehrkanal. This canal goes from south east to the western part of the city. The Landwehrkanal riversides are popular places for walking or relaxing. A website with an interactive map presents the current available “Dead Tree Drop” interfaces.


Screenshot of the interactive map of the “Dead Tree Drop” project.

Screenshot of the interactive map of the “Dead Tree Drop” project.


Website Screenshot of a “Dead Tree Drop” interface.

Website Screenshot of a “Dead Tree Drop” interface.


The data format from the content ranges from Wikipedia articles, website snapshots to video content. Topics of the content are famous places and persons of the surrounded location. Furthermore, the “Dead Tree Drop” project provides movies and documentaries related to its location (see table 2 on page 137).

PlaceDistrictInteractive ContentMoviesDocumentary
WeiganduferNeuköllnNeukölln, Landwehrkanal, Schiffahrtskanal, Reuterkiez, Reinhold KielKnallhart,
WeichselplatzNeuköllnNeukölln, Landwehrkanal, Schiffahrtskanal, Reuterkiez, Reinhold KielKnallhartProblems increasing costs of appartments
LohmühlenbrückeNeuköllnNeukölln, Landwehrkanal, Maybachufer, Lohmühlenbrücke, Reuterkiez, NFC Rot-Weiß BerlinDer Himmel über BerlinSkateclip of the
local skate park
PrinzessinenbadKreuzbergPrinzessinenbad, KreuzbergHerr LehmannPrinzessinnenbad
ReichpietschuferMitteBendlerblock, Bezirk Mitte, Reichpietschufer, Ministerium für VerteidigungLinie 1
Neuer SeeTiergartenTiergarten, Neuer See, Großer TiergartenChristiane F.
BahnhofTiergartenTiergarten, Großer Tiergarten, Bahnhof TiergartenChristiane F.,
Linie 1
MarchbrückeCharlottenburgBezirk Charlottenburg, Marchbrücke, Fraunhofer-Institut für Nachrichtentechnik ,
Jazz Institut Berlin, Universität der Künste Berlin, Gesche Joost
EinsteinuferCharlottenburgBezirk Charlottenburg, Landwehrkanal, Berliner Bezirke
List of distributed content on all “Dead Tree Drops“.


Findings and results

The USB flash drive could be integrated easily in the tree stumps. It was an advantage that only the plug is visible, because each USB adapter cable coveres completely the plug and emphasize the visual connection with the tree. In the beginning some users were sceptical about the interface, but when they were connected and browsed through the files, a feeling of curiosity began to arise. Particular, the short documentation about gentrification at the Weichselplatz in Neukölln provide users an impression of the neighbourhood problems. In that context the interfaces fulfill its expectation completely. Only the location of USB flash drives in a tree has to be considered. They need a better protection against wind and rain. One “Dead Tree Drop” was placed too close to the bottom. Unfortunately, someone broke it accidently or maybe on purpose. The future plan of “Dead Tree Drop” project is to create more of these interfaces and distribute them across the southern and northern parts of Berlin.


“Dead Tree Drop” interface connected with a notebook.

“Dead Tree Drop” interface connected with a notebook.


The almost invisible plug of the “Dead Tree Drop”.

The almost invisible plug of the “Dead Tree Drop”.


The tree stump is used as a chair for a more comfortable position.

The tree stump is used as a chair for a more comfortable position.


Two people watching a documentation about the gentrification problems in their neighbourhood.

Two people watching a documentation about the gentrification problems in their neighbourhood.


An example of the file browsing how the interface looks on a mobile phone.

An example of the file browsing how the interface looks on a mobile phone.



[Bartel2001] Bartelsheim, Sabine (2001). Pflanzenkunstwerke: Lebende Pflanzen in der Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts. Schreiber, 2001.

[KuUl2009] Kühn, Uwe; Kühn, Stefan, Ullrich, Bernd (2009). Bäume, die Geschichten erzählen: Von Tanzlinden, Gerichtseichen und heiligen Bäumen. Blv Buchverlag, 2009.

[Bartholl2012] Bartholl, Aram (2012). The Speed Book - Perceptive and entertaining investigations of digital culture. Gestalten, 2012

[Lima2014] Lima, Manuel (2014). The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge. Princeton Architectural Press, 2014.


  1. admin
    September 29th, 2014 at 19:21 | #1

    In relation to the USB Technology you should be aware that a risk always extist to connect unknown USB devices to your computer/mobile phone. The article Why the Security of USB Is Fundamentally Broken and its comments describe very good what the problems are.

    During development of my project I knew these technical problems and their are a part of this experiment. It reveals how a society deals with free resources. The inner emotions and intentions can be explored in good an bad ways.

    Furthermore, there exist always a work around for explore digital data without any serious damage, for instance using a virtual machine infrastructure…

  2. November 14th, 2014 at 11:49 | #2

    In relation to this project and the characterstic of online and offline interactive content, the crowdfunding project Lantern: One Device, Free Data From Space Forever presents an interesting autonomous-oriented technical approach for providing&distributing information.

    Furthermore, there exist an extraordinary passioned (JavaScript) programmer group who work on a decentralized webapp infrastructure. They call it the unhosted web apps and the idea is that the website or webapp and its content is downloaded and stored on the user device. Only changes on the old data and new data is downloaded by the unhosted web app. For solving this synchronization task, they work closely together with RemoteStorage project.

  3. December 7th, 2014 at 14:58 | #3

    Another project with the name The Physical Web explores new techniques and design for interaction with smart devices. The Dead Tree Drop could take over the role as a smart devices, which connects with the user’s phone and informs about its narrative service.

  4. admin
    March 24th, 2015 at 00:25 | #4

    The blog we make money not art published an interesting article about the project Tree Antenna (2014): using trees for radio transmission by Baltan Laboratories during the Age of Wonder festival (28-30.3.2014) in Eindhoven. It holds nice references to Media Archaeology aspects and even narrative characteristics in relation to trees (similiar to the Dead Tree Drop project above).

  5. admin
    September 10th, 2015 at 19:46 | #5

    The benefits of trees in urban landscapes are very well described in the article “Introducing ‘treeconomics’: how street trees can save our cities” (2015) by Patrick Barkham. In relation to Germany/Austria this article (2009) by Lorenz von Ehren Baumschule and this research report (short version) reveals the results in detail.

  6. admin
    April 12th, 2016 at 16:25 | #6

    The German/French TV Station arte produced a documentation series about the culture values of trees in Europe.

    Ein Taum vom Baum (2015) von Christophe d’Yvoire, Henri de Gerlache

  7. July 8th, 2016 at 12:09 | #7

    An technology alternative to USB Sticks in my installation could be the Wifi SD-Cards from Eyefi. Their solution provides an Adhoc Wifi Network powered by a SD Card Reader/Camera with access to the SD Card data content.

    It might possible to hack a USB Cable from a mobile phone that it provides enough power (electricity) for running the Wifi SD Card. This very space limited network (the wifi antenna within the SD Card is very weak) could provide a Near Field Interface for consuming the files.

  8. October 4th, 2016 at 08:47 | #8

    Google applied an interesting Offline first approach for their app Youtube Go (2016). With the help of Bluetooth, they establish P2P local file sharing networks, which makes it possible for other Youtube Go users to watch youtube videos within weak network infrastructures.

  9. admin
    November 4th, 2016 at 21:29 | #9

    Another decentralized solution for local servers for your local network is offered by the Mozilla Labs. The project is called FlyWeb and is still in production. The idea is that your Firefox browser is enabled to search&connect with your nearby devices or servers and then delivers your browser the appropiate website and a service api. It looks pretty interesting on the first view. It is supposed to work with NodeJS and RaspberryPi, which makes it pretty accessible for developers.


    Another alternative to FlyWeb is the Project Byzantium, which enables a ad-hoc wireless mesh networks. This can be a fallback solutions if the standard ISP infrastructure fails.

  10. admin
    November 19th, 2016 at 16:39 | #10

    goTenna (2016) is one of the first commercial infrastructure product for off-grid networks. Very appropiate for adventure trips or other ad-hoc local mesh-networks. It works kinda like a new generation of walkie talkies. Pretty interesting tool for a possible extension of my Dead Tree Drop project.

    Ubiquiti Networks provides solutions for countryside or other eremites style housing conditions. They offer a good collection of wide range wifi antennas, and other network equipment for autonomous community housing with an almost off-grid infrastructure. Their consumer product AmpliFi is very interesting product for extending the wifi in your house. It is a combination of a wifi router and mesh-network tool.

  11. December 13th, 2016 at 18:28 | #11

    The talk Portable Distributed Systems Using Node on “Routers” by Nick Hehr introduces local networks with a mesh based approach. He explains the most common network tools and also talked about the very interesting tool subnodes. This project holds a strong value and connection to my project Dead Tree Drop:

    The Subnodes project is an open source initiative focused on streamlining the process of setting up a Raspberry Pi as a wireless access point for distributing content, media, and shared digital experiences. The device behaves as a web server, creates its own local area network, and does not connect with the Internet.

  12. February 3rd, 2017 at 16:36 | #12

    The “Dead Tree Drops” project utilizes OpenStreet Map for describing each location of a drop. It would be much more interesting if the “drop” entity could describe its location by itself. Even more if each drop would be able to describe its environment with its own version of StreetMap. A place could be described in its own individual way, which importan because every map is also a political expression (please watch the talk Space making/space shaping by Ulf Teger)

    Luckily some people have worked on this use case. The technical solution is a serverless p2p OpenStreet Map toolkit, which meets pretty much the principles of offline first applications. More information here:


    Description of a current use case

  13. April 14th, 2017 at 16:55 | #13

    You Are Here” (2016) is an experimental journalism-distribution network. Which has definetely a local character and the technology behind this project is very interesting for this project.

  14. April 18th, 2017 at 22:18 | #14

    Related to this project the term Sneakernet or also called Turnschuhnetz plays an important role.

  15. admin
    July 19th, 2017 at 15:45 | #15

    Great talk by Elektra Wagenrad about OpenMTTP – an energy-autonomous router system powered by Freifunk technology. Such kind of solar powered router systems can provide access points for decentralize information networks. Imagine such routers could be used like LED Throwies.

    https://wiki.freifunk.net/Freifunk-Mast (in Deutsch)
    https://wiki.freifunk.net/Freifunk-MPP-Tracker (in Deutsch)

    By the way, The CCC Dategarten offers more cool talks

  16. August 11th, 2017 at 14:33 | #16

    Nice report about a mesh network goTenna compatible with bluetooth and your mobile

  17. February 13th, 2018 at 17:46 | #17

    Qual.net is an interesting project. Especially, the file-sharing feature for this kind of ad-hoc mesh networks look promising.


  18. February 13th, 2018 at 18:51 | #18

    The Particle Mesh IoT product series looks interesting as another approach for interactive tree stumps. Touch Interaction, external Power delivery and so on could enhance the User Experience of this interface


  19. March 12th, 2018 at 14:59 | #19

    PirateBox holds some strong similarities with my Dead Tree Drop. I

    PirateBox is a DIY anonymous offline file-sharing and communications system built with free software and inexpensive off-the-shelf hardware. (works with OpenWRT and Raspberry Pi)

    Goals of the PirateBox project:
    – PirateBox provides easy file sharing and messaging over a local area network.
    – PirateBox is designed to educate the public and make them aware about online censorship, surveillance and freedom of speech.
    – PirateBox truly respects privacy and thus does not collect any access or connection logs from its users.
    – PirateBox has an educational purpose and aims to teach about computer programming and computer networks.
    – PirateBox network (AP) should be open, and use open networking standards to allow communication with other users.


  20. August 30th, 2018 at 12:24 | #20

    A very nice short video clip about the communication and narratives of trees


  21. October 6th, 2018 at 17:10 | #21

    The documentation Xenius Die Natur als Baumeister (2018) summarised some cultural aspects of trees very nicely


    Furthermore, the book Sacred trees of Ireland (2016) holds many stories about the important human tree (and plant) relationship

  1. October 25th, 2014 at 14:18 | #1
  2. April 25th, 2016 at 14:46 | #2
  3. May 5th, 2016 at 11:35 | #3
  4. June 7th, 2017 at 00:49 | #4