A few years back an American company, Ambient Devices, came up with an idea. They thought to themselves that if people could see how much electricity they were using, they would know when they are using a lot of it and then decide to turn off a few hair dryers, etc to cut down. Hmm.. but how to let people see how much magical, invisible energy they are using? Surely we just can’t know these days because so many things just use electricity in a non-obvious way, such as being on standby!
Ambient Devices’s answer? The Energy Orb, a small sphere that sits someone in your house, and glows different colours depending on your energy consumption. Using a lot of juice? The orb glows red and you know to cut back. Even with all the lights off you may be surprised to see how much the sphere still indicates you’re using, and that is its genius – it takes an invisible, dynamic system and presents it to you in an easily accessible manner.
This is all a very clever and engaging use of modern technology. Bright colours. Saves money on your electricity bills, and consequently the environment. Now a few more companies have jumped on the band wagon, producing more functional devices that give you up to the second energy usage in a manner that’s easy to absorb without really having to look for it.
Ambient Feedback is a great concept, and one that’s close to my heart, but is it actually new? Not really, it’s just a necessary evolution as we move further from the physical world to the less visible world of the internet and micro-electronics. In the days of my youth we already had a feedback mechanism that told us we were using too much electricity.. it was called the electricity meter. We knew immediately how much energy was being used by how many precious 50 pence pieces were going into the slot, and how empty the 50p bowl next to the meter had gotten since we last topped it up. Simple, and very easy to understand!
Of course there were times when this mechanism failed as no 50 pence pieces could be found anywhere in the house in the middle of the night, so I’m certainly not suggesting we move away from the wonders of Direct Debit, but it’s worth remembering how these things used to naturally be represented to us in a way that we never appreciated at the time. Then this knowledge can be used to make better, more relevant and useful interfaces to solve problems in our modern lives.