Orb Makes Energy Conservation Easy, Funky

Wasting electricity is a lot of things—environmentally unsound, socially ignorant, financially foolish. However, it’s rarely visible, and that’s one of the reasons why most of us are guilty of it. But what if you could you tell how strained your local power system is, and even your cost per kilowatt-hour, just by glancing at a glowing green ball on your desk? The Ambient Orb allows you to do just that.

Ambient Devices sells wireless products that, as they put it, “make tangible interfaces to digital information.” In layman’s terms, that means that whatever data you want to keep track of, Ambient will send it to you wirelessly and present it in a way that makes it intuitive and easy to read. For example, weather data can be streamed to a special umbrella so that the handle changes color as the probability of rain increases (although I still prefer the old-fashioned method of determining appropriate umbrella use—“Am I getting wet now?”).

Clive Thompson of Wired magazine reports on an experiment by Southern California Edison manager Mark Martinez. Martinez had tried everything from automated phone calls to text messaging to ask customers to cut back on power use during peak times, but with no luck. Then he saw an Ambient Org in action, and realized it could be used as a way to keep customers aware of the power situation in a way that was unobtrusive yet impossible to ignore. He handed out 120 Orbs to customers, and over a few weeks watched their peak period usage drop by 40 percent.

It turns out that one of the principal reasons that we don’t curb our energy waste isn’t lack of interest or ability, but simply the way that our brains are put together. A push strategy—say, an email—can be ignored. A pull strategy, such as going to a website to get the information, requires effort. But an Orb just sits on your desk getting brighter and brighter, and burning a message like “The grid is collapsing! Turn the a/c down, you selfish bastard!” into your subconscious until you succumb to the guilt and give in. (Notionally an Orb could be built that literally shouts at you, but demand for that kind of device is probably limited.)

This kind of subtle enviro-nagging has all kinds of possibilities, as Thompson points out. He postulates a world in which we all constant monitor our carbon footprint and tweak our lifestyles accordingly, or even broadcast our energy use status via the web so friends and family can badger us about our bad habits too.