Drawing Energy and Powerchord at the London Design Festival 2014


The latest Powerchord prototype in use..

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The London Design Festival is a huge event taking place across London from today (13th) for the next couple of weeks, and we’re proud to say that two of our SusLab mini-projects, Drawing Energy and Powerchord, are featured, as part of two exhibitions.

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V_and_A_DiliffV&A Digital Design Weekend: 20 & 21 September

At the Victoria & Albert Museum, the 2014 V&A Digital Design Weekend, on Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st September, from 10.30am to 5pm, is a fantastic transformation of the V&A into “one big workshop… where visitors come together with artists and designers to discuss and think about objects, making and working collaboratively.” We’re honoured to be presenting our work in some very talented company, including James Bridle, Tine Bech and Bristol’s REACT Hub.

You can take part in Drawing Energy—please come along to see the collection, and create your vision of energy!—and play with Powerchord, and contribute to shaping the next stage of its development.

Dyson exterior_Helene BinetBreaking Through: New projects from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design: 15-25 September

Our projects are also featured in the Helen Hamlyn Centre’s own exhibition and symposium, taking place in the Dyson Building at RCA Battersea, each day from the 15th to 25th September, from 10am to 5.30pm. Breaking Through “demonstrates how emerging ideas can shape alternative futures in areas as diverse as energy use, office life and ageing populations—when ethnographic research and people-centred design are considered in tandem. From designs for a new London taxi to innovations in healthcare and developments for digital communities, there is an emphasis on user push rather than technology pull as the driving force to improve people’s lives through design.”

We’ll be showing the results of Drawing Energy so far, and you can also play with Powerchord by using appliances and hearing how it responds.

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About the projects

Drawing Energy (What Does Energy Look Like?) is a drawing project led by the Royal College of Art to explore how people imagine and think about energy. It is part of the wider European SusLabNWE project that is exploring energy use in the home.

Over the past year we have asked over one hundred people – students, children, academics, energy experts, designers and members of the public – to draw for us what they think energy looks like.

The project is described in a paper presented by Flora Bowden at the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics 2014 Congress in New York:

  • Bowden, F., Lockton, D., Gheerawo, R. & Brass, C. (2014). ‘Drawing Energy: Exploring the Aesthetics of the Invisible’. IAEA Congress 2014: Congress of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics, 22-24 August 2014, New York (paper PDF).

Powerchord is a prototype data sonification system, under development, which turns near-real time electricity monitoring, of multiple household appliances, into sound. The concept was developed from ideas suggested by householders during co-creation sessions as part of the SusLabNWE project.

The prototype uses the ‘guts’ of a CurrentCost energy monitor, connected to an Arduino which reads the XML data stream from the monitor and maps the power levels to particular tracks, played using a WAV Trigger. The current iteration uses birdsong, of different intensities, from recordings at xeno-canto.org

The project is described in a paper presented by Dan Lockton at the SoniHED Conference on Sonification of Health and Environmental Data, 12 September 2014, York:

  • Lockton, D., Bowden, F., Brass, C. & Gheerawo, R. (2014). ‘Bird-wattching: exploring sonification of home electricity use with birdsong’. SoniHED – Conference on Sonification of Health and Environmental Data, 12 September 2014, York (paper PDF).

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Introducing The Story Machine: Part 2

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Co-creation of the Story Machine

In Part 1, we discussed some of the challenges and ‘process friction’ in integrating digital storytelling into community activities, and introduced our initial work with The Mill, a community centre in Walthamstow, east London, which provides space and resources for local creative citizens to organise groups, events and activities. The next stage in our engagement with The Mill was understanding how storytelling could best be incorporated into the everyday running of the centre—the groups, events and activities that form the centre’s work.

Through autumn-winter 2013, some of the RCA team—Alan Outten, Lizzie Raby and Dan Lockton (myself) ran co-creation workshops with The Mill community (mostly active volunteers and visitors, young and old), together with Michelle Reader, a local Walthamstow artist whose sculptures and family workshops recycling scrap materials into animals and figures are been an important part of The Mill’s ambience. The workshops centred around the idea of a ‘Story Machine’, which at this stage was loosely defined as some kind of ‘system’ for capturing and sharing “stories about all the amazing things that happen” at The Mill.

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Initial questions included more divergent creative ones (e.g. whether the ‘machine’ should be one thing or several linked things, and whether it could be ‘enhanced’ over time through art and craft activities at The Mill), questions around reducing friction and increasing inclusivity and accessibility (how to make it so as many visitors as possible would be able to use it) and more practical questions relevant to the running of the centre (where the would machine live at The Mill, what security arrangements would be needed for it, how easy it would be to move, etc). We were conscious throughout of the need for the Story Machine to integrate with The Mill’s online presence—for the outputs to be directed to the website and social media in a useful way—but also of the possibilities of ‘lower-tech’ uses for the Story Machine that didn’t entirely rely on this integration.

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Introducing The Story Machine: Part 1

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Friction in integrating digital storytelling into community activities

For some community groups, the use of technology and digital media is built into the work they do—for example, the Wards Corner Community Coalition‘s very successful use of Stickyworld and social media to tell their story, integrated into the organisation of a whole range of community events.

For other groups, it’s something they would like to weave better into their activities, but which can be difficult to do strategically, for reasons including not just the diversity of skills within the group, but the time and organisational requirements for volunteers to coordinate everything alongside actually running the events. The challenges are rarely ones around motivation or engagement—volunteers are almost by definition engaged in what they are doing—nor indeed, in an era where many group members will regularly use mobile phones, social media and so on themselves, it is not necessarily solely a trite ‘digital divide’ problem.

Instead, in some cases it seems to come down to something like process friction: the route from someone taking photos or video or talking about what they’re doing at a group event, to those photos or videos or stories (in whatever form) being turned into an ‘output’ such as a blog post, an update to the group’s website, or being shared more widely beyond the group (perhaps even to promote it), can be strewn with gaps and bumps and contingencies which make it slow or fractured, from technology incompatibility to issues with user accounts to mental models of how systems work. The route probably involves multiple people, each with his or her own interests, skills and time commitments.

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Tools for ideation and problem solving: Part 1

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Back in the darkest days of my PhD, I started blogging extracts from the thesis as it was being written, particularly the literature review. It helped keep me motivated when I was at a very low point, and seemed to be of interest to readers who were unlikely to read the whole 300-page PDF or indeed the publications. Possibly because of the amount of useful terms in the text making them very Google-able, these remain extremely popular posts on this blog. So I thought I would continue, not quite where I left off, but with a few extracts that might actually be of practical use to people working on design, new ideas, and understanding people’s behaviour.

The first article (to be split over two parts) is about toolkits (and similar things, starting with an exploration of idea generation methods), prompted by much recent interest in the subject via projects such as Lucy Kimbell, Guy Julier, Jocelyn Bailey and Leah Armstrong’s Mapping Social Design Research & Practice and Nesta’s Development Impact & You toolkit, and some of our discussions at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for the Creative Citizens project about different formats for summarising information effectively. (On this last point, I should mention the Sustainable Cultures Engagement Toolkit developed in 2012-13 by my colleagues Catherine Greene and Lottie Crumbleholme, with Johnson Controls, which is now available online (12.5MB PDF).)

The article below is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the field, but was focused specifically on aspects which I felt were relevant for a ‘design for behaviour change’ toolkit, which became Design with Intent. I should also note that since the below was written, mostly in 2010-11, a number of very useful articles have collected together toolkits, card decks and similar things. I recommend: Venessa Miemis’s 21 Card Decks, Hanna Zoon’s Depository of Design Toolboxes, Joanna Choukeir’s Design Methods Resources, Stephen Anderson’s answer on this Quora thread, Ola Möller’s 40 Decks of Method Cards for Creativity, and Public Policy Lab’s list of Toolkits for Public Service Design. I’m sure there are others.


Problem-solving and problem-framing



“Engineers are not the only professional designers. Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artefacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.”
Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, 1969 (p.129 of 1981 MIT press 2nd edition)

Designers solve problems, but they are by no means alone in that. As Jack Schulze of BERG comments, ”so do dentists” (Kicker Studio, 2009). Design is not, then, identical to problem-solving, but it certainly involves addressing issues that are seen (by someone) as problems and developing new or changed products, services or environments (seen by someone as solutions) in response. This review is not going to fall into the ‘What is design?’ rabbit-hole, since that has been more than adequately explored by other authors, but it is important to understand how design processes can work, in order to identify the most useful characteristics for the proposed toolkit. [which became Design with Intent]

The view of design as being entirely about ‘problem-solving’—which, at its most mechanistic, is ”basically a form of means-ends analysis that aims at discovering a process description of the path that leads to a desired goal”—as espoused by Simon (1969/1981, p.223, and to some extent in the above quote), has become unfashionable in design research, and not just because of the implied lack of creativity in the process.[1] In particular, the reaction against the ‘problem-solving’ view follows Schön’s (1983) concept of The Reflective Practitioner, whose “inquiry is not limited to a deliberation about means which depends on a prior agreement about ends. He does not keep means and ends separate, but defines them interactively as he frames a problematic situation” (p.68).

Thus, design is seen as being as much about problem-framing as problem-solving, an exploration and co-evolution of both the problem and solution ‘spaces’ (Maher et al, 1996), questioning and refining the problem, changing focus and the boundaries of the problem as part of the process of generating solutions. [2]
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Introducing Powerchord (Blackbird edition)


Powerchord 1, housed in a Poundland lunchbox. In the video, you see a laptop (~40W) being plugged in, with, from 10 seconds, the Powerchord kicking in with relatively gentle blackbird song. (The initial very quiet birdsong at 4-8 seconds is actual blackbirds singing in the hedge outside!) Then at 30 seconds, a 400W electric heater is switched on, and the birdsong increases in emphasis accordingly. At 49 seconds, a second 400W element is switched on and the birdsong increases further in volume. There is some background noise of rain on the shed roof.

In the previous post, I introduced the exploration Flora Bowden and I have been doing of sonifying energy data, as part of the SusLab project. The ‘Sound of the Office’ represented twelve hours’ electricity use by three items of office infrastructure – the kettle, a laser printer, and a gang socket for a row of desks – turned into a 30-second MIDI file.

Going further with this idea, I’ve been playing with taking it into (near) real-time, producing sound directly in response to the electricity use of multiple appliances. Powerchord seemed too good a name to pass up. Again using CurrentCost IAMs, transmitting data to a CurrentCost EnviR, this system then uses an Arduino to parse the CurrentCost’s XML stream*, and trigger particular audio tracks via a Robertsonics WAV Trigger. I tried a GinSing to start with, which was a lot of fun, but the WAV Trigger offered a more immediate way of producing suitable sounds.

The Powerchord prototype   CurrentCost IAM

Testing GinSing   Alongside CurrentCost EnviR

There are lots of questions – what sort of sounds should the system produce? How should they relate to the instantaneous power consumption? Should they be linear or some other relationship? Should it be an ‘alarm’, alerting people to unusual or particularly high energy use, or a continuous soundtrack?** I decided in this case, that I wanted to build on a number of insights and anecdotes that had arisen during discussion of representing energy use in different ways:

  • one of the householders with whom we’re working had mentioned in an interview that she could tell, from the sound of the washing machine, what stage it was at in its cycle, even from other rooms of the house.
  • a remark from Greg Jackson of Intel’s ICRI Cities that the church bells he could hear from his office, chiming every 15 minutes, helped him establish a much better sense of what time it was, even when he didn’t consciously recall listening out for them
  • Blackbird

  • the amount of birdsong I can hear (mostly sparrows and blackbirds) both lying in bed early in the morning, and from the hedge behind the garden shed where I work when I’m working from home. Reinforced by a visit to the London Wetland Centre in Barnes a couple of weeks ago
  • the uncanniness of the occasional silence as the New Bus for London or other hybrid buses pull into traffic, compared with the familiarity of increasing revs for acceleration
  • the multi-sensory plug sockets produced by Ted Hunt during our ‘Seeing Things’ student workshop last year
  • the idea of linking time and daily routines and patterns to energy use, e.g. Loove Broms & Karin Ehrnberger’s Energy AWARE Clock at the Interactive Institute.
  • the notion of soundscapes, e.g. Dr Jamie Mackrill’s work at WMG with understanding and manipulating hospital soundscapes.
  • a recording I made out of the window of my hotel room, on a trip to Doha, of the continuous sound of construction work, interspersed with occasional pigeons
  • the popularity of things like Mashup: Jazz Rain Fire
  • Gordon Pask’s Ear and attempts to recreate it
  • the ‘clacking’ sound of split flap displays (e.g. mechanical railway departure boards) as an indicator that the display has updated, as Adrian McEwen and Hakim Cassimally point out in their Designing the Internet of Things.

All of this led to using birdsong as the sounds triggered – in the video here, blackbirds – at different intensities of song (volume, and number of birds) depending on the power measured by the CurrentCost, at 7 levels ranging from 5W to 1800W+. The files were adapted, in Audacity, from those available at the incredible Xeno-Canto – these include Creative Commons-licensed recordings by Jerome Fischer, Jordi Calvert, Roberto Lerco, Michele Peron, David M and Krzysztof Deoniziak. I also made sets of files using house sparrows, and herring gulls, which proved particularly irritating when testing in the office.

Arduino, WAV Trigger and cannibalised CurrentCost EnviR   Arduino, WAV Trigger and cannibalised CurrentCost EnviR

The initial intention was to use multiple IAMs, with different birdsong for each appliance, played polyphonically if appliances are being used at the same time. This is the aim for the next version (and I’ll publish the code), but was stymied in this case by 1) my misunderstanding of the CurrentCost XML spec, and 2) a failed IAM, which conspired together to limit this particular version to one IAM (with multiple appliances plugged into it), at least to have it ready to be shown at a couple of events last week. The prototype you see/hear here, in all its Poundland lunchbox-encased glory, was demonstrated by Flora Bowden and me at the V&A Digital Futures event at BL-NK, near Old Street, and at the UK Art Science Prize ‘Energy of the Future’ event at the Derby Silk Mill. It was more a demo to show that it could work at all than anything particularly impressive.

What’s the overall aim with all this? It’s an exploration of what’s possible, or might be useful, in helping people develop a different kind of understanding of energy use, and the patterns of energy use in daily life – not just based on on numerical feedback. If it’s design for behaviour change, it’s aiming to do so through increasing our understanding of, and familiarity with, the systems around us, making energy use something we can develop an instinctual feeling for, much like the sound of our car’s engine – once we’re familiar with it – effectively tells us when to change gear.

The next version will, hopefully, work with multiple appliances at once, playing polyphonic birdsong, and be somewhat better presented – I’ll post the code and schematics too – and, later in the year, might even be tested with some householders.

*Using a modified version of Colin R Williams’ code, in turn based on Francisco Anselmo’s.
**The distinction between model-based sonification and other approaches such as parameter-mapping sonification is useful here – many thanks to Chris Jack for this.

Thank you to Ross Atkin and Jason Mesut for suggestions! Blackbird photo by John Stratford, used under a CC licence.

Work in progress: Ambient audible energy data

The three instruments you hear here represent the electricity use of three items of office infrastructure – the kettle, a laser printer, and a gang socket for a row of desks – in the Helen Hamlyn Centre office over 12 hours from midnight on a Sunday to lunchtime on a Monday, in December, monitored using CurrentCost IAMs. The figures were scaled to provide ranges that sounded better, and converted into a MIDI file using John Walker’s csvmidi and then Aria Maestosa.

The ‘ticks’ indicate each hour’s passing. The ‘honk’ (Tenor Sax) is the kettle (up to 1.5kW when in use). The ‘whine’ (Synth Brass 1) is the Kyocera laser printer. The other synth (Polysynth) is the gang socket, which mainly had a couple of laptops (15W-50W) plugged into it when people were in the office, and a charger (1W) plugged into it otherwise . Lower pitch indicates greater electricity use, hence the high-pitched whine is the background power of the printer (about 10W on standby, rising to 300W-500W when in use).

As the audio starts, you can hear, over the background whine of the printer, the kettle come on as the security guard makes himself a middle-of-the-night cup of tea. Then, early in the morning, the kettle is used three times by the cleaners – twice in quick succession (reboiling?) and then once again. Suddenly, from 9.30, as office staff arrive, the kettle goes on again, laptops are plugged in, the printer starts printing and the energetic hubbub of office life becomes apparent.

Sound of the Office

Data sonification has been in the news a bit recently, from Domenico Vicinanza’s ‘Sound of Space Discovery’ to Opower’s ‘Chicago in the Wintertime’. It’s something that’s long intrigued me, but if I’m honest, has underwhelmed me in terms of either its actual utility or indeed its impact aesthetically. A (visual) graph is useful because I can use it to find something out. A table of numbers, likewise, even if patterns are less immediately evident. But a beautiful orchestral piece that just happens to draw on aggregated data which are a long way from anything I can comprehend, in scale or meaning, doesn’t tell me anything, somehow. Sarah Angliss was pretty much spot-on in this 2011 Mad Art Lab post.

Energy use is the focus of one of the main projects I’m working on, and one of the strongest findings that came out of interviews and co-creation work with householders that Flora Bowden and I did last summer and autumn was the notion that the invisibility of energy was a major component of householders’ lack of understanding, which contributed – by their own admission – to energy waste.

More than one person specifically suggested that being able to ‘listen’ to whether appliances were switched on or not, and, more interestingly, what state they were in (e.g. listening to a washing machine will give you a good idea as to where it is in its cycle), was potentially more useful for understanding how to reduce energy use than a flashy visual display or dashboard. Sound is potentially even more ‘glanceable’ than glanceables. Even hearing what you’d left on as you went out of the door would be useful. There are echoes of Mark Weiser’s Calm Technology including Natalie Jeremijenko’s Live Wire (Dangling String) but also the ‘useful side-effects’ of things like the ‘clacking’ sound of mechanical railway departure boards as an indicator that the display has updated, as Adrian McEwen and Hakim Cassimally point out in their excellent Designing the Internet of Things.

We also explored aspects of this idea further in our Seeing Things project with RCA students back in November, with contributors including Dave Cranmer and Dagny Rewera having an audio/visual sensory translation element to their work. Of the participants, Ted Hunt took an explicitly multi-sensory approach with his project, including audio, while Francesco Tacchini, with Julinka Ebhardt and Will Yates-Johnson, subsequently went on to create the incredible Space Replay where audio is both monitored and played back in public space.

I’m not saying the ‘Sound of the office’ audio above is particularly good. It was more of a let’s-play-around-with-some-data experiment, and I’ve since found that proper sonification platforms exist. But the approach is something I very much want to explore and build on – possibly whole-house energy use audio disaggregated by appliance, or by activity – and it raises so many interesting questions around what is most useful or most effective at actually either influencing energy use, or helping people understand the complex systems around them. Should it be aesthetically pleasing, or horrible enough it triggers you to turn things off? Is that just the kind of over-simplification that makes most energy monitor displays ineffective? Should the audio be real-time or provide a summary? Should it be paired with visuals? (e.g. like Alexander Chen’s beautiful MTA.ME or Listen to Bitcoin / Listen to Wikipedia) How much should it try to be ‘music’ versus, basically an ‘auditory affordance’ or alarm system? Should there be something about the quality of the sound that indicates something, e.g. load on the National Grid? (Thanks to Aideen McConville and Jack Kelly for this suggestion.)

The field is interesting partly because, post-PhD, I’ve come to realise that what I’m interested in is not so much the question of “how do we influence behaviour?” as an end in itself, but something more like “how do people understand complex systems of which their behaviour is a part, and how do we help them understand those systems better?”. There’s a substantial blog post coming on that, which hopefully draws together lots of interests and ideas, from the IoT to heuristics to seamfulness to affordances to mental models, and (I hope) will set out a kind of research programme which I might be able to get some funding for. But in the meantime, this is certainly part of the direction we’re going in with the ‘energy feedback’ part of the RCA’s work on the SusLab project. It’s going to be ambient, and it’s going to involve more than just numbers and graphs.

Direct link for MP3 file
Sound of the Office

Design, people & understanding