Although virtual pet devices like Tamagotchis strive to simulate the responsibilities of caring for a real animal, the stakes are low, and there are no real consequences if your pixelated pet passes away. That’s not the case with this conceptual smartwatch. There’s a real life living organism inside it, and if it’s not thriving, the smartwatch’s functionality becomes limited.
The last time I endeavored to care for a virtual pet, the exact same thing happened as the many other times I tried to commit to being a good Tamagotchi parent. It died, and not even a week after being born. It’s not like the little animated creature on-screen wasn’t endearing, but I just knew in the back of my mind that should it cease to be, a simple reset would bring another one into my life.
To increase the stakes, a team of researchers from the University of Chicago built a custom smartwatch with a sort of virtual pet of its own. But unlike the Tamagotchi smartwatches you can now buy that are still inhabited with digital creatures, the researchers’ smartwatch contained a living physarum polycephalum slime mold that was visible through a clear plastic housing.
Unlike a dog or cat that endears itself to you with endless cuddles, it’s hard to develop an attachment to a small patch of slime. So, as detailed in a paper published for the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology, the researchers engineered some very real consequences into the smartwatch if the slime wasn’t properly cared for, which involved regular feedings of oats every two days and one drop of water twice a day.
When thriving, the slime mold grows and eventually bridges a gap to become a living wire that conducts power to the smartwatch’s heart rate sensor, enabling the device’s advanced health monitoring features to work. If the slime mold isn’t properly cared for, it dries up and shrinks, breaking the circuit and disabling the sensor.
The researchers tested the smartwatch in a study involving five women who were all around age 30, who each wore the device for anywhere from nine to 14 days, or long enough to experience both the slime in a caring phase where it grew and flourished, and a neglect phase where it was less successful but never fully died.
The results were probably what the creators of the original Tamagotchis were hoping for. The test participants felt a greater sense of responsibility to care for the smartwatch and the creature inside it, and genuinely got a sense of it being a living being as they watched the oats they added being slowly consumed over time. It was also difficult for some of the participants to transition to the neglect phase after forming a bond with the slime, despite the reduced daily responsibilities of caring for it.
Can we expect virtual pets to become a lot less virtual in the near future? The creators of the Tamagotchi probably aren’t going to start packing their devices with slime molds any time soon, but the study could point to new ways of changing how we interact and treat our various devices. Companies strive to make smartphones resistant to damage with highly-engineered materials like Gorilla Glass, but if iPhone users lost access to TikTok because they weren’t properly caring for their smartphone and its living inhabitants, Apple probably wouldn’t need its Genius bars any more.