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Eco-Sense and Sensibility

by Worldchanging Austin local blogger, Sandra Burchsted:

Until recently it was next to impossible to quantify the cost of our day to day activities in terms of their environmental impact. It's hard to understand or manage something you can't see. Intuitively we know that running a hair dryer consumes more energy than leaving a lamp on with a compact fluorescent light bulb. However, this information has been hidden from us, rendering the costs “out of sight out of mind.”

This is changing….

Information about the real costs of our daily activities is becoming more accessible. Some interesting cultural changes have emerged from the increasing interest in making visible the invisible. We're gaining what I think of as eco-sense and sensibility, meaning that as the costs and consequences of our lifestyle choices become visible, we become more sensitive -- and sensible -- about the choices we make with regard to the environment. With our personal impact in plain view, we can't turn our heads, and the more we face the real consequences of our actions, the harder we'll try to adapt our behavior towards lighter impact living.

There are a host of new applications and gadgets on the market and in development that will help us live this value. Below you'll find a few such innovations that have captured my attention lately.

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The Real Costs is a plug-in for the FireFox application that makes what was once invisible, the amount of CO2 produced for an airplane flight visible. I used the tool recently when planning a trip from NYC to Geneva, Switzerland and can tell you that the information Real Costs provided me at the point of purchases effected the decision I made. I paid a bit more for a direct flight because there was a significant difference in the amount of CO2 between direct flights and flights with one or more stops.

Why Real Costs matters: The objective of the “Real Costs” project is to increase awareness of the environmental impact of certain day to day choices in the life of the Internet user by fusing art, science and technology in an ecological intervention. By presenting this environmental impact information in the place where decisions are being made, it creates a real impact on the viewer, encourages a sense of individual agency, and provides a set of alternatives and immediate actions. In the process the user/viewer will be transformed from passive consumer to engaged citizen.

energytree_small.jpgThe Energy Tree is a gadget developed by Ben Arent, for monitoring energy use in the home. It is one of 34 finalist in Microsoft's StartSomthing PC design completion. The winning concept will be announced May 15, 2007.

The EnergyTree is a device dedicated to monitoring your household energy use. It monitors you energy output from sockets and any device that is using electricity. It also monitors Recycling, and recycling efficiency as sustainable design is about "cradle to cradle" and not just about using less.

energytree3_small.jpgThe Energy Tree will have a user interface that will display information on you energy consumption letting you know what devices are draining and will give you the option to turn them off. As a long term interface the EnergyTree will grow a real tree from the EnergyTree, this will grow if you are energy efficient, but waste energy and it will start to get a disease and or die.

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Squirrel will turn your mobile phone into an air quality sensor if Shannon Spanhake and Kael Greco have their way.

Squirrel and the companion software, Acorn, also represent a bold exercise in social responsibility and cross-border engagement. "We want to make air quality data visible, accessible and legible to raise consciousness of environmental monitoring," says Spanhake. For this, she has collaborated with Calit2 researcher Kael Greco, author of a mobile webcam application that uploads images taken by the mobile phone automatically and continuously. These images are tagged and manipulated with the sampled pollution data -- the grittier the image, the more polluted the air is -- then displayed in real time on a web page. "This, along with other visual and audible ways, will help to demystify what 20ppm is in a meaningful way," says Spanhake, adding: "Low-cost technology will also make it available and scalable to the technological, environmental and cultural needs of individuals, communities and cities."

The device is low-cost, mobile, and scalable. It is also intended to be a building block for the creation of a mobile wireless sensor network dependent upon those who breathe the air -- people. "Squirrel is meant to monitor an individual's personal exposure to the air, thus providing a means for agency in the production of air pollution data," says Spanhake. "It will enable supplemental data to the environmental protection agencies that cannot afford to scale their technology to population growth and urban sprawl."

There are only a handful of pollution sensors used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to gauge pollution levels in San Diego County, and a few more on the other side of the border in Mexico. According to Spanhake, "the price of wireless and sensor technology is now making it feasible that every person with a cell phone could become a pollution monitor, taking readings 24/7 of their personal exposure and feeding the results wirelessly to a database that would give us a lot more concrete data on which to make informed decisions about how to fight pollution at the level of the individual, the region, and the country."

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Wattson is a home energy monitor we've mentioned in the past. It is the perfect example of a device that is making the invisible visible and appealing to our eco-sense and sensibility. At present Wattson is only available in the UK.

Wattson interacts with the products that surround it, enhances users sensitivity to their environment, communicates with clarity and is leading us to a new understanding of the notion of home as a machine for living.

Wattson is an easy to use wireless device that can be placed anywhere in the home or office. Wattson shows how much energy the other electrical devices that surround it use. Wattson has a graphic and color sensitive display that shows power use in £'s, Watts and as a changing spectrum of color.

Software included with product to view chronological & real time data, connecting to DIY KYOTO community and hub (PC & MAC compatible) Smart meters, which measure your energy consumption, are adopting the eco-chic look, too. We've come a long way from the po-faced appearance of the Electrisave, a gadget that measures your real-time electricity use; last year bought us the DIY Kyoto Wattson, a curving slab of loveliness with a glowing integrated display that changes from blue to red as your energy use increases.

Eco - Visualization Futurists make a practice of following the work of because frequently they are leading indicators of change. Tiffany Holmes, Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Technology Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago is leading the way in artistically visualizing “eco” data. She wanted to find out if creative visualizations of real time energy consumption patterns trigger more ecologically responsible behavior? In her report, Eco-visualization: Combining art and technology to reduce ener4gy consumption she concludes:

Research from the previous two years has opened a new area of discourse called eco-visualization. Eco-visualization provides new strategies for localized energy conservation that combines both artistic and scientific information to produce new forms of dynamic data representation.. Ecovisualizations are designed expressly to promote resource conservation and a positive connection to nature. Ecovisualizations can make hidden environmental information, such as kilowatts of electricity or carbon loads, visible and thus, more readily comprehensible to a resident population either in the workplace or at home. It is possible that display of these data-driven computer animations, which depict ecological statistics in real time could offer numerous potential benefits to society: elevated conservation behavior and support of good environmental stewardship. I am extremely interested to report in the future on the relative success or failure of this project to maintain interest in creating a carbon neutral workspace.

Citing the example of Midden and McCalley's plea for further research on “eco-feedback,” the eco-visualization field posits a fresh arena to implement, analyze, and refine research on dynamic environmental feedback as a novel conservation strategy. Innovative, low-cost, and portable strategies that monitor consumption patterns could offer a viable small-small-scale solution to the enormous problem of dependence on non-renewable sources of energy.

More Associates' has developed an “energy communication” program to help people understand their energy usage so they can reduce their energy-consumption, save money and reduce their carbon dioxide emissions.

We've developed two prototype products based on the MorePower platform. They help people to easily gain a deep understand of the connection between the way they use things and how they manage to get through so much energy! Normally, people either don't think about these things at all, or they have to guess, and these guesses are often very far off the mark. When you can actually see where your energy goes, you can focus your attention where it's most rewarding.

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