Mark Martinez couldn’t get Southern California Edison customers to conserve energy. As the utility’s manager of program development, he had tried alerting them when it was time to dial back electricity use on a hot day — he’d send automated phone calls, text messages, and emails. No luck.
Then he saw the Ambient Orb, a glowing globe that changes color to represent changes in streaming data (stock prices, weather, etc). Martinez realized he could use Orb to signal changes in electrical rates, programming them to glow green when the grid was underused – and, thus, when electricity was cheaper – and red during peak hours when customers were paying more for power. He bought 120 of them, handed them out to customers, and sat back to see what would happen.
Within weeks, Orb users reduced their peak-period energy use by 40 percent. Why? Because, Martinez explains, the glowing sphere was less annoying and more persistent than a text alert. “It’s nonintrusive,” he says. “It has a relatively benign effect. But when you suddenly see your ball flashing red, you notice.”
Electricity is essentially invisible. That’s why we waste so much of it in the home – leaving rechargers permanently plugged in and electronic devices idling in power-slurping “sleep” modes. We can’t see that our houses account for nearly a quarter of the nation’s energy appetite; we don’t know when the grid is nearing capacity and expensive to use.
So Martinez made energy visible. That’s the power of “ambient information,” which tries to combat data overload by moving information off computer screens and into the world around us. The Orb was originally sold as a tool for monitoring financial portfolios. You could set it to shine blue when your stocks were going up or pulse an alarming red when they were tanking.
Studies showed that people were three times more likely to actively manage their investments, selling off deadbeat stocks and buying better-performing ones, when they used the Orb. This is the psychological paradox of ambient information: We’re more likely to act on a subtle but continuously present message than an intermittent one we’re forced to stare at.
So here’s the radical idea: Maybe the real application for ambient information isn’t alleviating data overload or tracking investments. Maybe it’s taming global warming. To improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions, we first need to make omnipresent the hidden facts about our usage – and paint them on the world around us.
Source: Clive Thompson, Wired.com