Tardigrade Biome
A Mobile Microbiology Ecosystem

Google was developing add-on devices for their modular cell phone, Project Ara, to showcase the power of the device and demonstrate the enormous potential for customization and expansion. To accomplish this, they sought the help of external companies to work on many standard modules like camera upgrades or battery packs.

In addition to these standard modules, Google wanted to commission a module that really pushed the boundaries of what was expected. They needed something strange. In December 2015, they came to Midnight Commercial with a simple creative brief: "imagine and develop a module that nobody else can." We accepted their challenge.

Projects that demand thinking beyond and across diverse domains are what excite us the most—ideas that push the boundary of both what is possible and what is even considered. This was an opportunity to do something really daring. 

We knew that whatever we created had to fully showcase Ara’s technical and conceptual capabilities—it had to be something that could only be done with a modular phone. And beyond that, it had to be something no one else on the planet would attempt. And it had to really work.

Of all the wild, outlandish ideas we proposed, we decided to create a home for an extremophile pet on their phone. So we designed an observable, microscopic aquarium module, a tiny ecosystem of living microorganisms, algae, and tardigrades (more commonly known as "water bears") that users could view through their phone screen.

Our module was a provocation that asked users to bring a mindfulness to their relationship with their phones. We carry them around with us every hour of the day, they lay next to us in bed, and they are the first thing we caress when we wake up. When a phone is misplaced or its screen is injured, we feel a genuine emotional loss, as if it was a living entity. We have a cyber-organic relationship with our personal devices; something that borders symbiotic. We wanted to highlight that relationship with our module.

This concept presented a number of technical challenges—there was no modern microscopy technique that could get the necessary resolution in the form factor of a phone, and there was substantial challenge in developing a sustainable ecosystem that could exist in your pocket. We had to develop an entirely new microscopy approach to be able to view tardigrades on your phone, and designed the mobile experience for Ara users to view this tiny universe.