Glowing orbs could change eco-behavior worldwide

Wired magazine has an interesting story about how manager Mark Martinez at Southern California Edison (SCE) got customers to reduce energy consumption by giving them Ambient Orbs. They’re small spheres that change colors in response to changing streams of data — first marketed to monitor the stock market (blue is good, red is panic). But Martinez configured the orbs to respond to data about electric rates for SCE customers. Normally the orbs emit a green glow, but when recipients see their orbs flashing red, they know it’s a good time to power down where possible (e.g., adjust the thermostat, turn off excess lights).

It’s an elegant way to make energy consumption visible. Without information overload. It’s in your peripheral vision. As the Wired article points out:

[T]he glowing sphere was less annoying and more persistent than a text alert. “It’s nonintrusive,” [Martinez] says. “It has a relatively benign effect. But when you suddenly see your ball flashing red, you notice.”

There’s already solid evidence that feedback mechanisms can change eco-behavior. Think about how hybrid-car owners become obsessed with the dashboard display showing an on-the-fly calculation of gas mileage. The result? They change the way they drive, specifically trying to maximize mileage. It becomes a game, an enjoyable challenge, complete with quantifiable personal bests.

Here’s an even wilder idea: How about making our energy use visible to everyone? Imagine if your daily consumption were part of your Facebook page — and broadcast to your friends by RSS feed. That would trigger what Ambient Devices CEO David Rose calls the sentinel effect: You’d work harder to conserve so you don’t look like a jackass in front of your peers.

This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. The design firm DIY Kyoto (as in Kyoto Protocol) recently began 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.

Imagine energy orbs glowing on desktops all over the world. It could make a difference.

When your orb is glowing red, power down!
Ambient Orbs spark bright idea for cutting energy waste

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