All posts filed under “Design engineering

Water on the membrane

Smart sink, Cranfield University and Electrolux
The Cranfield/Electrolux Smart Sink – photo from Trespassers by Ed van Hinte and Conny Bakker.

Ten years ago, teams from Cranfield University and Electrolux Industrial Design collaborated on an ‘eco-kitchen’, a family of related concepts for a kitchen of the future. Part of the intention was to demonstrate that eco-design could be a positive spur to innovation, rather than merely an ‘environmental cost-cutting’ exercise. The project is explained in this article from The Journal of Sustainable Product Innovation [PDF] (starting on page 51).

What’s especially interesting from the architectures of control / design for behaviour change perspective is the Smart Sink (above), which, very simply, uses a membrane for the bowl, expanding (treefrog-vocal-sac-like,) as it’s filled, thus making it much more easy to control the amount of water being used – along with some other neat features in the same vein:

The ‘Smart Sink’ is the centre of household water management. A membrane sink expands to minimise water use and a smart tap switches from jet to spray to mist to suit customer needs. A consumption meter and a water-level indicator in the main basin gives feedback on rates and level of water usage. Household grey water is managed visibly by an osmosis purifier and a cyclone filter located in the pedestal, and linked to the household grey water storage.

We’ve looked before at taps (faucets) with built-in water meters, in various forms, but the Smart Sink concept goes beyond this in terms of assisting the user control his or her own water use. Gentle persuasion or guidance rather than external control, but guidance that gives the user helpful feedback. Ten years later: are membrane sinks available? Why not? What else could be done in this line of thinking?

On the level

Patent image of Tilt sensor
A tilt-detector from this 1984 US patent, with intended application on a packing box.

The liquid detection stickers in mobile phones, which allow manufacturers and retailers to ascertain if a phone has got wet, and thus reject warranty claims (whether judiciously/appropriately or not), seem to be concerning a lot of people worldwide. Around a quarter of this site’s visitors are searching for information on this subject, and the comments on last October’s post on the subject contain a wealth of useful experience and advice.

This current thread on uk.legal.moderated goes into more depth on the issue, and how the burden of proof works in this case (at least in the UK). While informed opinion seems to be that the stickers will only change colour when actual liquid is present within the phone, rather than mere moisture or damp, this may well include condensation forming within the casing, as well as the more obvious dropping-of-phone-into-puddle and so on. The main point of contention seems to be that the sticker may change colour (perhaps gradually) and the phone continue working perfectly, but when an unrelated problem occurs and the phone is taken in for repairs under warranty, the presence of the ‘voided’ sticker may be used as a universal warranty get-out even if the actual problem is something different.

Tilt detection
Along these lines, one of the posts tells of a similarly interesting design tactic – tilt-detectors on larger hardware:

30 years in the IT industry and associated customer service tells me they are trying it on and most people buy it. In the olden days, hardware used to come with a similar red dot system indicating the kit had been tilted more than 45 degrees and the manufacturers claimed the kit could not be installed and had to be written off.

Of course, 99.9% of the time the kit was fine, but they had a get-out from a warranty claim or so they thought. When the buyers tried to claim on their insurance or against the transport companies insurers the loss adjusters got involved and invariably the kit was installed and worked fine for years rather than the insurers paying out.

In some cases, of course, tilt-detectors were (are still?) necessary in this role. A piece of equipment with multiple vertically cantilevered PCBs laden with heavy components – relays, for example – might well be damaged if the PCBs were tilted away from the vertical. Certainly some devices with small moving coil components would seem as though they may be damaged by being turned upside down, for example. (Do the ultra-fine damper wires on an aperture-grille CRT monitor such as a Trinitron need to be kept in a particular orientation when handling the monitor?)

This patent, published in 1984, from which the above images were extracted, describes an especially clever ‘interlock’ system using two liquid-based detectors arranged so that if the device/package is tilted and then tilted back again, the second detector will then be triggered:

…it is desirable that the tilt detectors not be resettable. In particular, it must be possible to combine a package with at least a pair of the tilt detectors such that attempting to reset one would cause the other to be tilted beyond its pre-determined maximum angle so that the total combination would always afford an indication that the tilt beyond that allowed had been effected.

This is something of a poka-yoke – but as with the phone liquid-detection stickers, it’s being used to detect undesirable customer/handler behaviour rather than actually to prevent it happening. Other than making a package too heavy to tilt, I am not sure exactly how we might design something which actually prevents the tilting problem, aside from rectifying the design problem which makes tilting a problem in the first place (even filling the airspace in the case with non-conductive, low-density foam might help here).

But there’s certainly a way the tilt-detector could be improved to help and inform the handler rather than simply ‘condemn’ the device. For example, it could let out an audible alarm if the package or device is tilted, say, 20 degrees, to allow the handler to rectify his or her mistake before reaching the damaging 45 degrees, whilst still permanently changing colour if 45 degrees is reached. In the long run, it would probably help educated users about how to handle the device rather than just ‘punishing’ them for an infraction. I’m sure that mercury-switch (or whatever the current non-toxic equivalent is) alarms have been used in this way (e.g. on a vending machine), but how often are they used to help the user rather than alert security?

The patent description goes on to mention using tamper-evident methods of attaching the detectors to the device or packaging – this is another interesting area, which I am sure we will cover at some point on the blog.

Freelancing Part 3: The Ben Wilson Interview

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series I looked at some aspects of what it’s like being a freelance designer / engineer / maker, and some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Lots of freelancers have blogs, and sites such as Freelance Switch and Sologig News draw together some very interesting (and diverse) people and advice. I did an interview for Sologig News a few months ago.

One of the things that I’m often asked, mainly by design students intrigued by the idea of working for themselves once they graduate, is just how to go about doing it: how to raise your profile, and find the right projects to take on. Having really only been marginally successful in this area, I decided to interview Ben Wilson, with whom I’ve worked on a couple of projects, and who’s achieved a great deal working for himself in this field. Ben’s blog, along with his brothers, is a great photostream-style travelogue of interesting products, vehicles, graphic design, places and influences.

Tilting Trike by Ben WilsonDownlow Lowrider by Ben Wilson
Left: The Tilting Trike in arm-propelled mode. Right: The Downlow Lowrider
Read More

Dishonourable discharge?

Nokia phone with battery visible

Long overdue, I’m currently reading Bruce Schneier‘s excellent Beyond Fear, and realising that in many ways, security thinking overlaps with architectures of control: the goal of so many systems is to control users’ behaviour or to deny the user the ability to perform certain actions. I’ll post a fuller comparison and analysis in due course, but one example Bruce mentions in passing seemed worth blogging separately:

Nokia spends about a hundred times more money per phone on battery security than on communications security. The security system senses when a consumer uses a third-party battery and switches the phone into maximum power-consumption mode; the point is to ensure that consumers buy only Nokia batteries.

Nokia is prepared to spend a considerable amount of money solving a security problem that it perceives – it loses revenue if customers buy batteries from someone else – even though that solution is detrimental to consumers.

As a battery authentication method, this is more subtle than the systems we’ve looked at before, which actually refuse to allow the device to operate if a non-original-manufacturer battery (or perhaps charger) is used.

Nokia’s system attempts to persuade the customer that the new (cheaper) battery he or she has bought is “no good” by making the phone discharge the battery more quickly – in an extremely underhanded way. From the point of view of the (uninformed) consumer, though, it makes Nokia look good. “Oh, that cheap battery I bought is rubbish, it doesn’t seem to hold its charge. Nokia make them so much better, guess I should stick to them in future.”

But if the Nokia batteries were genuinely ‘better’ than the cheap replacement ones, surely this kind of underhanded tactic wouldn’t be necessary?

P.S. I have no idea whether this Nokia ‘trick’ is real/common/still used, as Beyond Fear has no references, or whether other manufacturers do something similar (as opposed to outright battery authentication-and-denial). I’ll ask a friend at Nokia.

P.P.S. Jason Kottke also noted this tactic back in 2003.

Design & Punishment

Design & Punishment chair, by Ben Cunningham
Design and Punishment, by Ben Cunningham. Photo from the Arts Institute at Bournemouth‘s 2007 Three Dimensional Design graduate directory.

Very neatly linking the themes of the last two posts (devices to make users aware of their energy use, and intentionally uncomfortable seating) is the Design and Punishment chair by Ben Cunningham, a Three Dimensional Design graduate from the Arts Institute at Bournemouth.

Simply, the concept is a chair which progressively collapses as the user’s home energy use becomes excessive, and restores itself when corrective action is taken (such as turning devices off):

Chairs are designed to support a person’s weight: this is taken for granted, but what if that feature were taken away from the user until they have done their bit? This is a way of forcefully highlighting the issue, so they cannot ignore it any more.

The idea is for a range of products with similar ideas – one of Ben’s lecturers, Christian McLening, also mentioned to me the idea of a light cord that retracts gradually the more energy is used, and a bookshelf that similarly tilts gradually. The light cord sounds intriguing, but by making the cord more difficult to reach (to turn it off), it perhaps signifies the opposite of what’s intended. Along the lines of what Crosbie Fitch suggested here, lights which gradually dimmed as the house’s energy consumption increased might be an interesting alternative. But Ben’s aim was very much to play with the ‘punishment’ aspect:

Design and Punishment was, to begin with, a look at designing a product that could make saving energy in the home easier through better awareness. The products force the user to cut down on their energy consumption. Instead of trying to make energy saving easier, the range of products forces the user to save [energy] or suffer a punishment.

Again, the line between forcing the user (physically) to behave in a certain way, and persuading him or her to change behaviour, is not a distinct one; as Toby commented here, both are methods of control, and both are powerful, but in cases such as this where the user would have to choose to purchase the chair voluntarily (Ben’s chair is only a concept product, but the principle stands), the persuasion/coercion would be two/three-pronged: inspiring the purchase in the first place/motivating the user to use it where more convenient alternatives are available, and the actual forcing aspect when the user’s behaviour is changed, rather than the product being abandoned in frustration/annoyance.

Making energy use visible

Harry Ward Orb
Photos courtesy of Harry Ward

We’ve looked recently at water taps with meters built in, the thinking being the ‘speedometer’ approach to shaping users’ behaviour – making users aware of the scale/rate/level of some activity should cause them to adjust that behaviour.

A number of projects and initiatives also apply this approach to electricity use – one of the most explicitly ‘designerly’ being Wattson – but there are a variety of different approaches, a handful of which I’ve reviewed here.

Harry Ward: Orb Energy Monitor
Recent design graduate Harry Ward’s Orb energy monitor (above and below) is especially attractive: a toroidal inductor is clipped around the cable being measured, and transmits data wirelessly to the Orb itself, a hand-held unit which glows different colours depending on the power being drawn.

The display on the Orb could show the user the direct electricity cost and CO2 emissions equivalent, as well as the actual power being used and cumulative energy (kWh) used over a period. Harry has applied for patents and is looking to license the design in order to get the Orb into production.

UPDATE (27.vii): The Orb Energy Monitor website is now online with more information, images and contact details.

Harry Ward Orb
Harry Ward Orb
Images courtesy of Harry Ward

Ambient Devices: Energy Joule
The Energy Joule / Home Joule from Ambient Devices of New York (found via Michael Jefferson’s blog) shares some similarities with Harry’s Orb, but addresses a different problem: demand response, rather than actual consumption reduction.

The Energy Joule is designed to remain in situ, plugged into a wall socket, and it glows different colours (red, yellow, green) according to the price of electricity at the time – the idea being to encourage users to shift discretionary electricity use to times when there is less demand, and help the electricity generators balance their loads (an increasing problem), in return for ‘rewards’. As part of a wireless network (the Ambient Infocast Network – this is getting closer to everyware), the unit also displays other information such as temperature, weather forecast, and so on – and it’s the community’s electricity usage which is generally intended to be displayed, rather than the individual user’s.

Ambient Devices Energy Joule
Image from Ambient Devices’ website

(Ambient Devices also have a product called the Energy Orb – no relation to Harry’s product above – a version of their general Orb specifically locked-in to displaying the same electricity price/demand level as the Energy Joule.)

Gustafsson & Gyllenswärd: Power Aware Cord
Stemming originally from the Static! project at Sweden’s Interactive Institute, the Power Aware Cord by Anton Gustafsson and Magnus Gyllenswärd, is illuminated proportionally to the power being drawn:

Take the use of an everyday iron. A microprocessor within the Power Aware Cord immediately detects and converts the amount of energy used to power the appliance into a phosphorous thread that glows. The modern blue light intensifies and diminishes relative to energy flow. Increase the temperature of the iron and the cable will instantly glow brighter.

The versatile cord can be built-in or connected to the modern electrical appliance both directly or in distribution board format. Turn the appliance on and the flow of energy lights up the cord with a decorative glow.

This is an interesting approach: it allows users to be immediately aware of the devices which are consuming power, perhaps on standby, and is visually distinctive enough to make it difficult to ignore. As with all these products, extra energy is used to power the monitoring and display (lighting, etc), but this amount is small compared with the amount that may be saved if users do adjust their behaviour significantly.

Power Aware Cord Power Aware Cord
Images from Power Aware Cord website

Kieva Mussington: Energy Monitor Switch
Kieva Mussington, a product design graduate from the University of Brighton, has specifically addressed the problem of devices left on standby, with the Energy Monitor Switch:

This product concept helps reduce wasted electricity in the home caused by appliances that have inefficient standby modes by making users aware of how much energy they use. Further developments include a light switch and plug socket disabling device that will make it easier for the user to save electricity.

Kieva Mussington: Energy Monitor Switches Kieva Mussington: Energy Monitor Switches
Details and images from the University’s 2007 design graduate directory

I’ve made the observation before on the blog that without undertstanding what being ‘on standby’ involves for many devices, a lot of users assume that because just that one red LED is lit, that’s all the power being used. Anything which can bust the myth by showing that significant power is still being used is very much worthwhile, although changing the way that standby modes operate would ultimately be preferable (I’m dubious about the moves to ban standby functions entirely, for reasons explained here).

But do these kinds of things actually work in reducing energy use?
Eric and Alex let me know about an ongoing research project by Jordan Fischer, Sarah Jones and John Kestner at the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago in which methods of making users aware of their energy use are tried out:

They wired up a house to constantly monitor energy consumption in real time to increase awareness… no one knows how users might respond unless the concepts are tried out and feedback is gathered. What my classmates found when they prototyped their system was that the housemates (who are concerned about sustainability if not acutely aware of their impact) ended up turning the system into a game. “How low can we get the number to go?” Not sure how such a game would work for long term behavior change yet, but who knows. If it’s fun, it might work.

Alex, a participant in one of the experiments, sheds some more light on the ‘game’ aspects:

One thing that I never expected was that I tried a couple of time to see not only how low we could get the number, but also how high. I am not sure either what the more long term effects of such a game might have been, but thinking back, as with these water meters, it is difficult to improve your consumption habits once the obvious sources of waste are eliminated. Or, if it is a game, are we trying to beat our own averages those of our friends or neighbors or some ideal rate? What are we to compare to, A Bill McDonough Zero Waste standard or incremental improvement?

It will be interesting to see the results of the project as it progresses – one intriguing aspect is the Watt Watchers trial [PDF link], where a network of light bulbs dims if too many are left on, and thus ‘coaches’ the user not to leave lights on unnecessarily:

All the light bulbs in a house have special collars that find each other via a mesh network and say whether they’re on or off. Then they all decide based on how many of them are on whether to dim to remind the occupant that too many things might be on.

Jordan Fischer, Watt Watchers
Image from Watt Watchers summary [PDF]

Overall, there are some very interesting products and projects in this field of ‘making energy use visible’, and if it does have the potential to influence user behaviour significantly, more widespread adoption must be likely in the years ahead.