All posts filed under “Ubiquitous computing

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.

Shaping behaviour: Part 2

Dashboard of 1992 Reliant Scimitar SST, on B1098 somewhere near March
Speedometer, rev counter and fuel and temperature gauges on the dashboard of my 1992 Reliant Scimitar SST. Photo taken on B1098 alongside Sixteen Foot Drain, Isle of Ely, England.

In part 1 of ‘Shaping behaviour’, we took a look at ‘sticks and carrots’ as approaches for shaping (or changing) people’s behaviour. It’s especially worth reading and thinking about the comments on that post as there are some very thoughtful analyses which go beyond my rather cursory treatment. ‘Shaping behaviour’ is a vast field, encompassing pretty much all of politics, advertising and marketing alongside much of religion, education, psychology (and psychiatry?), product and graphic design.

The ‘sticks, carrots and speedometers’ classification was originally mentioned to me as a possible method by Chris Vanstone, of the UK Design Council’s former research arm, RED. The idea is that you can get people to change their behaviour by persuading (or forcing) them with ‘sticks’ (punishment/disincentives), ‘carrots’ (rewards) or ‘speedometers’ (showing them the results of their actions, how they’re doing, or how well they could be doing if they changed their behaviour). Having looked at sticks and carrots – and found the classification rather limiting – let’s take a look at speedometers.

Some gauges provide information which directly relates to a user’s actions at that time. An actual speedometer or rev counter allows the user to determine what effect his or her actions are having on a vehicle, and take corrective action if the information displayed is outside the ‘correct’ range (of course there are other factors, such as the resistance to motion from drag or going uphill, and if one can hear the engine, a rev counter’s perhaps not really necessary, but I digress). Other gauges, such as fuel or temperature gauges (see photo at top) show us information over which we can’t have so much direct influence (or, in the case of a clock, say, no influence…) but about which we need to take action if certain levels are reached. Certainly, we change our behaviour as a result of taking in the information displayed. Usually. And the speedometer can of course be a metaphor for other methods of feedback or information displays – which I’ll get to later on.

Energy use

Sticking with physical gauges for the moment, in recent times there’s been a lot of design effort put into devices which monitor and display our energy or fuel use, with the hope that they’ll persuade us to change our behaviour, or bring to our attention which devices (e.g. in a home) are more power-hungry than others in an immediately persuasive way. The Design Council’s Future Currents project, which investigated a range of interesting techniques and design approaches, put the idea well:

Energy is invisible, which makes it difficult to control. We can give people the tools to monitor their own energy use. Studies show that if people can see what they’re using, they use up to 15% less energy.

An anecdote in Kalle Lasn’s Design Anarchy claims an even larger reduction:

The manager of a housing co-op was increasingly frustrated with her tenants. No matter how much she reminded and badgered them… the tenants would not, could not reduce their energy consumption. Finally she hit an idea. What would happen, she wondered, if the electricity meters were moved from the basement to a conspicuous spot right beside the front door, so that each time the tenants left or entered their home, they could see how fast their meter was whirring? The meters were moved. Lo and behold, within a few weeks electricity consumption fell 30 percent.

(It’s not clear whether there were individual meters so tenants could see each other’s consumption – that kind of control by embarrassment, or social pressure, may be effective in this free-rider or unequal contribution situation.)

Wattbox by Gary Lockton, 1992 You make waste visible. From Design Anarchy by Kalle Lasn
Wattson - image from diykyoto.com Example 'greenness gauge' from Design Council's Future Currents website
Flower Lamp Power Aware Cord
Above left: Wattbox by Gary Lockton, Brunel University, 1992, a simple unit which displayed the cost of electricity being used as well as estimated bills; Above right: ‘You make waste visible’ from Kalle Lasn’s Design Anarchy; Centre left: Wattson, from DIYKyoto; Centre right: An example ‘greenness gauge’ from the Design Council’s Future Currents project; Bottom left: Static! Flower Lamp ‘blooms’ when a household has reduced its power consumption for a period; Bottom right: Static! Power Aware Cord glows with an intensity related to the power being used. First image courtesy of Paul Turnock; other images from the websites linked.

The convergence of new monitoring and connectivity technologies such as home wireless networks and RFID, with the pressure to scrutinise our environmental impact, has meant that there are more opportunities for potentially persuasive, interesting ways of approaching this area. Tom Coates has some good thoughts on this, and the relation to continuous monitoring of other parts of our (and others’) lives, and how fascinating it can be. Wattson (thanks to both Richard Reynolds and Michelle Douglas for originally bringing this to my attention) takes an especially ‘designer’ approach, becoming a coffee-table talking point as well as showing (in different display modes) the power currently being used, the costs, and, via a coloured glow projected onto the table below, a non-numerical indication of the intensity of power usage. Similarly playful methods are used in some of the Static! projects from Stockholm’s Interactive Institute – perhaps, in fact, when the ‘event’ which occurs as the ‘speedometer’ registers more desirable values is exciting in itself, the technique is closer to a ‘carrot’ than a speedometer.

EU energy label A mess of adaptors
Left: The Energy Label, required on certain products/packaging in the EU; Right: A typical mess of adaptors powering home electronic equipment. Here we have a scanner, a power drill charger, a printer (plug hidden), a battery charger and a cutting plotter. How easy is it for a consumer to audit the power usage of this kind of mess?

The related debate over standby buttons on home electrical equipment which I covered briefly in July last year, brought home an important point to me, as someone who’s worked on quite a few consumer electronic products powered from adaptors: many users think that if a red LED is on when the product is ‘off’, that little LED is all that’s being powered. That’s quite an important issue when it comes to consumers having a better understanding of their home energy use.

When seeing the Wattson and Future Currents projects for the first time, I was tempted to say “well, why don’t people just look at the power ratings on the appliances they buy?” but soon realised that that’s a pretty entrenched engineering mindset rearing itself in my mind. People don’t want to have to look on a label on the back of the product. They mostly don’t think about energy use when buying products. Even the use of ‘green’ labelling on the front of products (e.g. the EU label shown above) doesn’t hit home the actual monetary costs of different devices over typical usage periods. In this sense, monitoring devices which really get the user interested in using products more efficiently do seem to be very much worth it, even when they themselves use more power than strictly ‘necessary’.

(There are a few points I’d like to make about home lighting and ‘energy saving’ light bulbs, especially since some aspects of the recent blogosphere commentary made me think a little further, but they can wait for another day…)

Economy gauges

Economy vacuum gauge MPG meter from Toyota Camry
Left: A traditional analogue vacuum gauge showing ‘fuel economy’. Image from brochure for Reliant Rialto 2, 1984; Right: Toyota’s Eco Drive meter from the Camry – image from HybridCars.com. As an aside, I have no idea how 35-40 mpg can be considered ‘excellent’! What year is this?

Moving away from home electricity consumption, the increased prevalence of electronic in-car trip computers, usually built-in, has meant that second-by-second fuel economy read-outs are much more common, and can again inspire a kind of self-challenge to maximise economy while driving. As the miles-per-gallon (or perhaps L/100 km) figure drops (or increases) with every blip on the accelerator or rapid acceleration from the traffic lights, drivers really can train themselves to change their behaviour (indeed, I know a couple of people who are constantly shifting their gaze from the road ahead down to, alternately, the speedometer and the miles per gallon figure, to see “how well they are doing”, which is not necessarily ideal). Economy gauges in cars are nothing new – vacuum gauges were quite a popular home-fit accessory at one time, but they generally did not directly relate to the fuel consumption per distance travelled, merely the vacuum in the inlet manifold, hence the amount of fuel-air mixture being drawn through, whether or not the car were moving.

An alternative type of economy gauge was that once used by Volvo and other manufacturers, which compared the engine’s rpm (or the gearbox rpm?) to the gear selected (manual only, I presume) and illuminated a gearstick icon when the driver was in the ‘wrong’ gear, i.e. driving at less than optimum efficiency. Even more simply, some car companies used to mark the ‘gearchange points’ on the speedometer with dots at certain speeds – assuming the driver could not tell from the engine note that the gear engaged was too high or low, the dots would at least give some indication, though of course different driving conditions and loads would make the dots’ positions guidelines rather than absolutes. (I do have photographs of both these designs, somewhere, but will have to post them at some point in the future.)

Speedometers and control

Certainly, then, physical speedometers and gauges can have an effect on users’ behaviour and can encourage people to change; technology seems to be making this easier and more interesting and engaging. There are so many opportunities; already in some countries, there are roadside speed displays to make motorists aware of their speed (which present a fun challenge for drivers, or indeed cyclists, wanting to see what they can achieve) – how long before we have roadside CO2 monitoring (with displays)?

But are any of these ‘architectures of control’?

In the sense that they are methods of persuasion rather than methods of restriction or enforcement, they are on one side of a line with rigid control on the other, but when we look at techniques such as the control by embarrassment, or social pressure mentioned earlier, we can see that there is some kind of continuum related to how the information displayed by the speedometer (of whatever form) is used: if only you can see your personal energy usage habits within a house, you can make the choice whether or not to change your behaviour, but if the rest of your household can also see your habits, and see that you’re costing them unnecessary money, the pressure on you to change is much greater.

That, I think, is where the ‘control’ element comes in. Say that every household’s yearly carbon emissions (however this were to be calculated) were monitored. If the information were available to the householders, it may give them food for thought, and may inspire changing behaviour. If the information were available to the government, it may lead to taxation, and may lead to changing behaviour. If the information were legally required to be displayed on an illuminated sign outside the house, so neighbours could see who was “getting away with more carbon emissions”, it may (perhaps) lead to people changing behaviour too, or risk recriminations from the community, possibly worse than just social embarrassment. This last case is pretty much speedometer + blackmail, and I would say that that crosses the line to become control. If you want to fit in, and not be censured by others, you have to conform. That is an architecture of control, very much so, and hence we can see that speedometers, as with many other possible design elements, can be used as part of systems of control, but are not in themselves necessarily political. It’s the way they’re used that makes them, possibly, controversial.

The speedometer metaphor

Metaphorically, of course, a speedometer can be any method of making users aware of their behaviour, or the link between their behaviour and some other effect. Many of the examples studied and created by Stanford’s Captology / Persuasive Technology lab fall into this area, offering users feedback on their actions, or encouraging them to behave in a certain way (e.g. giving up smoking) through highlighting causal relationships.

But isn’t this, to some extent, what all persuasion is about, if we allow our ‘speedometer’ to have, in some situations, only two values (on/’good’ vs off/’bad’)? Everything ‘persuasive’, from advertising campaigns to counselling, is about saying “A is happening/not happening because you’re doing/not doing B; it will be better/stop happening if you stop/start doing C.” A speedometer is saying “You’re doing OK because this is the result of your actions” or “Look at the results of your actions – you need to change what you’re doing!”

Is it true, then to say that any situation where one entity (person/animal/plant) is trying to change the behaviour of another entity is resolved either by control (forcing the change in behaviour) or persuasion (inspiring the change in behaviour), or a combination of the two (e.g. by tricking the entity into changing behaviour)?

Or is that too simplistic?

Reversing the emphasis of a control environment

Image from Flickr user Monkeys & Kiwis

Image from Monkeys & Kiwis (Flickr)

Chris Weightman let me know about how it felt to watch last Thursday’s iPod Flashmob at London’s Liverpool Street station: the dominant sense was of a mass of people overturning the ‘prescribed’ behaviour designed into an environment, and turning the area into their own canvas, overlaying individualised, externally silent experiences on the usual commuter traffic.

Probably wouldn’t get away with that sort of thing at an airport any more anyway, but what will happen to this kind of informal gathering in the era of the societies of control? When everyware monitors exactly who’s where and forces the barriers closed for anyone hoping to use the space for something other than that for which it was intended?

Shaping behaviour at the Design Council

RED talk, Design Council. Photo by Kate Andrews
Photo by Kate Andrews

I’ve blogged before mentioning the work of the UK Design Council’s RED research arm, which applies ‘design thinking’ to redevelop and create public services appropriate for societal changes right now and in the years to come. The previous post was specifically about Jennie Winhall’s ‘Is design political?’ essay, but I’ve kept in touch with RED’s work and was very interested to attend RED’s Open House last Friday, along with Katrin Svabo Bech and Kate Andrews.

The presentation, by Jennie Winhall, Chris Vanstone* and Matthew Horne, introduced the Kitchen Cabinet (democratic engagement) and Activmobs projects, along with a brief discussion of the concept of shaping behaviour through design, which is of course of significant pertinence to the ‘architectures of control’ idea (as it is indeed to captology).

(Sadly, there was apparently not time to give any more than a cursory treatment of RED’s Transformation Design concept [PDF link, 193 kb], which re-casts design thinking as the cross-disciplinary approach for problem-solving in a great variety of disciplines. The paper leads with a great quote from Charles Eames: “More than 30 years ago, Charles Eames, the American multidisciplinary designer, was asked, ‘What are the boundaries of design?’. He replied, ‘What are the boundaries of problems?’”. I was especially looking forward to a discussion on transformation design, as my hunch is that many of us who’ve chosen to go into design (and engineering) have realised and appreciated this for a long time – indeed, it may even be the reason why we went into it: a desire to acquire the tools to shape, change and improve the world – but that by expressing it explicitly, RED has a great chance to win the understanding of a political establishment and general public who still often equate design with styling and little more. But I digress…)

Jennie Winhall’s discussion of shaping behaviour through design was a clear exposition of the principle that empowering people to change their own behaviour ought to be more preferable than forcing them to change their behaviour externally. Traditional policy-making fails in this context: it is easier to put in CCTV than to solve the underlying casuses of crime; it is easier to fund more obesity treatment than it is to tackle poor diet in the first place (the phrase ‘symptom doctor’ was not used, but it might have been). Describing the idea of manipulating behaviour through design as being slightly ‘sinister’, Jennie noted that it has been used in a commercial context for many years (it was one of those talks where I was almost bursting to interrupt with actual examples discussed on this website, though I didn’t!), but, as Oxford’s Lucy Kimbell pointed out, there is not necessarily an easy way to apply the techniques in a field where the aims are less well-defined (“social good” as opposed to “money”):

“But the outcomes of public service designs are complex. RED sees value in making use of design methods used in Marks & Spencer, for example, to make the consuming experience “compelling and desirable” and applying them to public service contexts. In the M&S context, the use of these methods may well have a clear, measurable business objective: increasing sales, for example – and even here design practitioners may well struggle with framing the design problem, communicating with the client, and measuring the value of the design process and artefacts. How much harder it is to define and agree goals for public services or public goods?”

Looking at the politically motivated examples of architectures of control which I’ve examined over the last couple of years, I’d say a significant percentage of them are designed with the goal of stamping out a particular type of behaviour, usually classed as anti-social and usually extremely contentious: this really is social engineering. The success of skateboarding ‘deterrents’ is measured by how few children skateboard in an area. The success of the Mosquito is measured by how few children congregate in an area. The success of park benches with central armrests is measured by how there are no longer people lying down on them. The “woollier” behaviour-shaping architectures of control, such as Square Eyes or the Entertrainer are very much edging towards captology, and perhaps these examples are closer to RED’s field of experience.

WorldChanging also has a discussion of the RED Open House presentation.

*Speaking to us individually, Chris Vanstone used “stick, carrot or speedometer” as a way of classifying design methods for behavioural change, and I think this is worthy of a separate post, as this is an extremely insightful way of looking at these issues from an interaction design point of view.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation

Remote magnetic manipulation of nervous systems - Hendricus Loos
An image from Hendricus Loos’s 2001 US patent, ‘Remote Magnetic Manipulation of Nervous Systems’

In my review of Adam Greenfield‘s Everyware a couple of months ago, I mentioned – briefly – the work of Hendricus Loos, whose series of patents cover subjects including “Manipulation of nervous systems by electric fields”, “Subliminal acoustic manipulation of nervous systems”, “Magnetic excitation of sensory resonances” and “Remote magnetic manipulation of nervous systems”. A theme emerges, of which this post by Tom Coates at Plasticbag.org reminded me:

“There was one speaker at FOO this year that would literally have blown my brain away if he’d happened to have had his equipment with him. Ed Boyden talked about transcranial magnetic stimulation – basically how to use focused magnetic fields to stimulate sections of the brain and hence change behaviour. He talked about how you could use this kind of stimulation to improve mood and fight depression, to induce visual phenomena or reduce schizophrenic symptoms, hallucinations and dreams, speed up language processing, improve attention, break habits and improve creativity.

He ended by telling the story of one prominent thinker in this field who developed a wand that she could touch against a part of your head and stop you being able to talk. Apparently she used to roam around the laboratories doing this to people. She also apparently had her head shaved and tattooed with all the various areas of the brain and what direct stimulation to them (with a wand) could do to her. She has, apparently, since grown her hair. I’d love to meet her.”

Now, the direct, therapeutic usage of small-range systems such as these is very different to the discipline-at-a-distance proposed in a number of Loos’s patents (where an ‘offender’ can be incapacitated, using, e.g. a magnetic field), but both are architectures of control: systems designed to modify, restrict and control people’s behaviour.

And, I would venture to suggest, a more widespread adoption of magnetic stimulation for therapeutic uses – perhaps, in time, designed into a safe, attractive consumer product for DIY relaxation/stimulation/hallucination – is likely to lead to further experimentation and exploration of ‘control’ applications for law enforcement, crowd ‘management’, and other disciplinary uses. I think we – designers, engineers, tech people, architects, social activists, anyone who values freedom – should be concerned, but the impressive initiative of the Open-rTMS Project will at least ensure that we’re able to understand the technology.

Some links: miscellaneous, pertinent to architectures of control

Ulises Mejias on ‘Confinement, Education and the Control Society’ – fascinating commentary on Deleuze’s societies of control and how the instant communication and ‘life-long learning’ potential (and, I guess, everyware) of the internet age may facilitate control and repression:

“This is the paradox of social media that has been bothering me lately: an ’empowering’ media that provides increased opportunities for communication, education and online participation, but which at the same time further isolates individuals and aggregates them into masses –more prone to control, and by extension more prone to discipline.”


Slashdot on ‘A working economy without DRM?’ – same debate as ever, but some very insightful comments


Slashdot on ‘Explaining DRM to a less-experienced PC user’ – I particularly like SmallFurryCreature’s ‘Sugar cube’ analogy


‘The Promise of a Post-Copyright World’ by Karl Fogel – extremely clear analysis of the history of copyright and, especially, the way it has been presented to the public over the centuries


(Via BoingBoing) The Entertrainer – a heart monitor-linked TV controller: your TV stays on with the volume at a usable level only while you keep exercising at the required rate. Similar concept to Gillian Swan’s Square-Eyes