Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Nudging with color changing bulbs!

This post is dated. But better late than never. One of the biggest challenges for electricity utilities with optimizing electricity usage is to get consumers to exercise demand-response and manage their consumption patterns in response to changes in load conditions and variations in tariffs. Standard solutions have involved massive awareness campaigns, and even more invasive e-mail and SMS messages and telephone calls to inform people about their consumption patterns. However, the results have been dismal, at best marginal.

In this context, the Southern California Edison electricity utility has developed a device, Ambient Orb, that seek to nudge consumers into optimizing their energy usage. The Ambient Orb is a glowing globe that changes color to represent changes in any streaming data. This device when linked to the local grid, becomes an Energy Orb, a device that can be used to represent current grid load and the relative price of electricity at any given moment.

The device signal changes in electrical rates, being programmed to glow green when the grid is underused — and, thus, electricity cheaper — and red during peak hours when customers pay more for power. An initial sample of 120 devices reduced peak energy consumption by 40%.

Unlike text messages, telephone calls, and other intermittent and invasive signals to remind people about their behaviours, Ambient Orb like devices are constantly in communication with its audience, forming a part of the natural environment in which those people live. Such devices help communicate dynamic information or address the problem of information over-load in a cognitively salient manner.

Such devices help bring to the immediate and direct notice of its target audience certain information they are not likely to observe (and therefore act on). The Orbs were apparently originally used to monitor financial portfolios - set it to shine a serene sky blue when your stocks were going up or pulse an alarming red when they were tanking. Its cognitive salience was thought to help investors overcome their inertia and actively manage their investments by selling off deadbeat stocks and buying better-performing ones.

The power of such devices, especially in areas like energy conservation, can be amplified if its users are networked and information on each other is made available to all. In this context, a design firm DIY Kyoto has been selling a device called the Wattson, which not only shows your energy usage but can also transmit the data to a Web site, letting you compare yourself with other Wattson users worldwide.

Other uses of such ambient devices include monitoring dynamic environments like monitoring water consumption, tracking weather changes, even tracking household grocery stocks. Here are a few other examples of where it could be used

1. Over-speeding - Orb device connected to the speed governors can remind drivers when they are over-speeding
2. Drunken driving - Orb device connected to an alcohol detection sensor can remind drivers about the fact that they have alcohol levels beyond permissible levels.
3. Monitoring pending files/issues - Orb device placed on the office table and attached to an Excel sheet (which contains information about file or other pendencies) can remind officials when their pendencies cross the limits.
4. Project monitoring - Project heads, especially those at the highest levels, or Government Heads of Departments could use such devices to keep an eye on the progress of execution of their Project. The device could be connected to the PERT/GANTT charts to generate the required color changes that indicates progress of work.

Here is a list of ambinet orb devices that are being sold by the firm Ambient Devices. The Ambient Umbrella looks the most interesting

If rain is forecast, the handle of this umbrella glows so you won't forget it. The Ambient Umbrella continuously displays forecast data for 150 US locations. Embedded in the handle is Ambient's wireless data-radio. This chip receives data and pulses when rain is forecast.

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