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San Francisco Has a Robotic Sculpture You Control With Your Brain

"Neuroflowers" changes color and blossoms according to your mental focus.

Some artists prefer you appreciate their work from afar. Others want you to get up close and, in this case, mind-meld with it.

"Neuroflowers" is a public sculpture that debuted Thursday in downtown San Francisco. It looks like a garden of glowing, radioactive flowers, or perhaps a small colony of bioluminescent deep-sea creatures. People drawn to its entrancing lights will find an EEG-studded headset that monitors their brain activity. By concentrating or relaxing focus, they can make the sculpture's petals cycle through a rainbow spectrum and open up, like magical, night-blooming cacti.

The singular sculpture, so suited to the city's tech crowd, is the work of Ashley Newton, a self-described robot fan who studied cognitive science in college. She writes that she hopes "Neuroflowers" will "create magical experiences that cause people to feel surprise, wonder, curiosity—and to question their conceptions of what is possible." And as a bonus, she implies in the above video, maybe it will inspire folks to reflect on their mental muscle: "I do think that the more you're able to be aware of your mind and control it appropriately, the more effective you'll be at doing whatever you want and the better you'll feel."

"Neuroflowers" will stand until April 11 as part of the Market Street Prototyping Festival, a vast place-making event that has artists, designers, and geeks creating interventions on San Francisco's prime artery. When people are done playing with the electro-flowers, they can participate in a range of other ephemeral activities this weekend, like whipping ping-pong balls on the sidewalk, tracing the routes of long-buried streams, and, uh, sitting under a giant dining table.

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.