Archived entries for research

Past, present, and future

Upon successfully defending my thesis in February, I found myself suddenly at the end of my Masters degree. Just like that, 2.5 years of work came to a recognizable endpoint. I decided I was ready for it.

Since then, I have been working full time as a UI Developer and Interaction Designer at SAP Labs Vancouver, where I work with an amazing team on StreamWork, a social collaboration app for business. I am enjoying the transition to industry for the time-being, and am learning a great deal from my colleagues about how to apply design thinking to interesting everyday problems, and how to write scalable, maintainable, and reliable software. I am also learning just how skewed the view of the real world really is from inside the academic bubble.

My thesis is available in full as a PDF from the SFU digital library: Residential Resource Use Feedback: Exploring Ambient and Artistic Approaches. Please contact me if you are interested in a printed copy, or in reproduction of individual chapters.

Though I’ve moved on from school, I’m of course still fascinated by the topics of my research, so I’m not entirely removing myself from the discussion. Recent and upcoming experiences/projects include:

I’m excited by the innovative ideas coming out of the HCI and UbiComp communities around sustainability and our relationship to the resources we use, and the spontaneous collectives springing up around these issues in Vancouver. I’m also energized by the possibilities that DIY/hack culture represent for innovation in this and a multitude of related areas. With these interests in mind, and so many questions to explore, I don’t think my official time in the culture of ideas is done quite yet. But taking several years off between my undergrad and masters was the best thing I ever did for my personal development and perspective on technology. See you in a while!

Participants needed for research study

arly in September, I will be running a research study assessing the design requirements for ambient and artistic visualization of residential resource use. I am currently recruiting participants for the study. Individuals wishing to participate must be 19+. The study will take approximately 1 hour to complete, and participants will be entered into a lottery for a $300 gift certificate in recognition of their contribution.

If you or someone you know might be interested in participating, please let me know! Contact Johnny Rodgers at jgr3 at sfu dot ca.. Clicking on the advertisement below will load a PDF version of the document. Feel free to post and circulate!


Upcoming Graphics Interface and GRAND Conferences in Ottawa

got the good news this week that I will be traveling to our nation’s beautiful capital for two conferences taking place in early June. At the first, Graphics Interface, I will be presenting a poster on ambient and artistic visualization of residential resource use. This research has grown out of my prototyping efforts in this area during the development of ALIS v2 for West House.

Rodgers, J. and Bartram, L. (2010). Ambient and Artistic Visualization of Residential Resource Use.

Supporting sustainable resource use in the home requires a range of feedback techniques to enable informed decision-making. These techniques can include traditional screen-based interfaces, but these tools often require too much effort and attention from already-busy residents. An alternative approach is the provision of ambient and artistic visualizations integrated into the domestic environment. This method reduces the attention required of residents, increases aesthetic interest and coherence with the home, and enables situated and timely feedback on resource use. We present the theoretical basis of our research, discuss how we have applied it to the development of prototypes in two green home projects, and detail our ongoing efforts to evaluate techniques within this domain.

After GI, I will be attending the GRAND Networks of Centres of Excellence Conference as a student representative of the Human-Centered Technologies for Sustainable Living research node. There I will be presenting a poster on the emerging design framework that I have been working on as part of my thesis research:

Rodgers, J. and Bartram, L. (2010). Residential Resource Use Feedback Technology: A Framework for Design.

Providing effective feedback on resource consumption in the home is a key challenge of environmental conservation efforts. However, existing approaches have relied on a variety of assumptions about effective techniques without a unifying theoretical foundation, or a means of reliably comparing the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches. This is a design space in need of some structure. We present a comprehensive framework for the analysis and design of tools that provide feedback on residential resource use. We base this framework on our research experience in three contexts: 1) the design and implementation of energy management systems in two high-profile sustainable homes, 2) an extensive review of the relevant literature, and 3) an analysis of existing products and tools in the marketplace and research community. We propose five sets of dimensions upon which these tools may be mapped: Context, Behaviour, Human Factors, Aesthetics, and Data. The framework serves both the investigation of existing instances and the design of future systems. We offer this framework in order to deepen our understanding of approaches to providing feedback on resource use, and in hopes of establishing a common set of terms to characterize the field.

Hope to see you in Ottawa!

Presentation at SFU Exchange

n May 6th, I presented my research at SFU Exchange, a showcase of graduate student research, ideas, innovations, and entrepreneurial skills. I presented a brief overview of the research problem I am working on, covering some of the psychological research, a summary of available tools, and our information ecosystem approach to designing integrated feedback systems.

My slides and accompanying notes follow:

SLIDE 1: Introduction
My name’s Johnny Rodgers. I’m a Masters of Science student at the School of Interactive Arts & Technology.

I’ve been working with Lyn on these projects for the last 18 months alongside others in our research group. My contributions have been in design, programming, system installation and testing, and research.

I’m going to give a bit more detail on the research surrounding our approach, and talk about a few examples of the tools we’ve built and what we’ve learned in the process.

SLIDE 2: Introduction
My research aims to make the consumption of residential resources visible in order to support informed decision-making.

Problem: We don’t have the information we need in our daily activities to reduce our consumption of energy, water, and other household resources.

Ask someone on the street how many kWh of electricity they used yesterday, and you’ll likely get a blank stare, even though the same person might be able to tell you the mileage they get in their car.

We just don’t have access to this information, except for a hydro bill every couple of months.

Slide 3: Engaging Residents
Research has consistently shown that providing feedback can reduce energy consumption by 5-20%.

However, we can’t just throw information at the problem. As Lyn mentioned, we all already have more information than we know what to do with.

We need to contextualize feedback so it makes sense to people acting in a given situation: in our case, residential activities.

Slides 4-8: Tools
Lots of tools exist to try to address this problem both in the marketplace and research community. They use a multiplicity of approaches:

  • Dashboards & Analytic Interfaces
    - detailed interfaces, task-oriented, high attention
  • Point-of-consumption Feedback
    - at-a-glance, situated
  • Mobile Tools
    - on-the-go, awareness and connection to household
  • Smart Appliances
    - task-specific, opportunities for change, introduce automation into household activities
  • Ambient & Artistic Displays
    - peripheral, subtle, promote curiosity and playfulness

Each helps residents make certain kinds of decisions and answer certain questions.

Slide 9: Motivating Change
The psychological literature helps us understand some aspects of the problem of motivating behaviour change.

Feedback alone is not enough to achieve long-term change. Must be combined with other factors.

Utilities have experimented with various pricing penalty and reward schemes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, penalties are more effective than prizes. However, intrinsic incentives work better than either. That is, if you can achieve buy-in on an individual basis, you don’t need to use carrots or sticks.

Social influences in the form of public commitments and peer champions are particularly effective, especially when combined with individualized feedback.

Ultimately, multi-pronged strategies including feedback and social influences are most effective.

Long term change is only achieved when social norms change. People must be convinced of the effectiveness and value of their efforts.

Slide 10: Findings
From our experience with existing approaches and our review of the literature, we’ve arrived at several key findings informing our own approach to the problem.

Combine different motivational techniques in order to amplify the effects of each.

Address multiple perspectives on energy conservation by catering to various motivations and mental models. For example, one person in the household might think in economic terms and be best motivated by financial units, while another may be concerned with emissions and be motivated by information expressed in environmental units such as kg/CO2.

Provide multiple methods of access to the same information: make it accessible rather than demanding the resident refer to a centralized source.

Support in-the-moment, situated decision-making as well as long-term planning.

Define baselines of energy consumption appropriate to individual circumstances. Turns out that in general the wealthiest individuals use the most resources, and can also make the greatest conservation gains due to this high baseline. This is a unique situation that won’t necessarily translate to a low-income household or a shared living space.

Combine feedback with opportunities for change. For example, situate information about heating costs alongside a thermostat control.

Slide 11: An Ecosystem Approach
We’ve applied these insights and arrived at an ecosystem approach to the problem.

Seeks to provide information where and when it’s needed, integrated into the home as a holistic system.

Slide 12: ALIS
This approach is exemplified by our implementation of ALIS: the Aware Living Interface System.

In North House and West House, we developed prototypes across a web application, social networking tools, a mobile application developed for the iPhone, touch-based controls, and ambient and informative art displays.

Provides tools that are useful for residents both at home and away, when going about daily activities, and when actively thinking about resource use in the home.

I wish I had time to talk about each piece in detail, but I’m going to quickly explain our approach to ambient and artistic feedback.

Slide 13: Ambient & Artistic Feedback
These kinds of tools:

  • Display information that is important but not critical
  • Can move from the periphery to the focus of attention and back again
  • Provide subtle changes to reflect updates
  • Are aesthetically pleasing and environmentally appropriate

Slide 14: Ambient Canvas
One major prototype we developed in this space is called the Ambient Canvas.

It’s a light display embedded in the kitchen backslash of West House made up of LED strings mounted behind acrylic and glass.

It provides feedback on residential resource use by displaying relative levels of use.

Slide 15: Water Use
It can be configured to provide feedback on water use.

As the residents go about their daily activities like washing dishes, taking a shower, running the washing machine and so on, the Canvas will fill up to display their use as a relative value compared to their average use.

During the Olympics when we were exhibiting West House, we saw that visitors were really drawn to this display. They’d come into the kitchen and say “Oooohh, that’s pretty!” Then they’d pause and say, “…What is it?”

So after hearing this a few dozen times we knew we were on to something, but that conveying information in a non-traditional format takes careful consideration.

Our demonstration had the Canvas fully lit. In our model, this would indicate a high level of resource use – something to be avoided! However, visitors loved the look of it when fully lit, so perhaps our model is backward. Perhaps visually active states should be reserved for low levels of use in order to encourage conservation.

Slide 16: Next Steps
In my research, I’m trying to answer these and a wide variety of other questions about the development of these systems.

Our next steps are the refinement of concepts and further development of prototypes, experimental evaluation of ambient and artistic feedback, and eventually long-term studies in West House.

Notes on the Pulse Energy webinar on Building Occupant Engagement

oday I attended a webinar hosted by Pulse Energy on building occupant engagement, titled Save Energy in Your Buildings by Engaging Occupants in Your Energy Reduction Plan. The presentation was led by David Helliwell, CEO of Pulse Energy, and Andrew Pape-Salmon, Director of Energy Efficiency Branch for the government of British Columbia.

While the focus of the discussion was on engaging occupants of large buildings in a work context, the findings that Andrew presented clearly overlap with my own research. He presented the results of an energy conservation study undertaken at the Jack Davis building in Victoria, BC. The study combined targeted community based social marketing with feedback and a web-accessible energy information system (Pulse Energy). Three floors of the building were monitored to gather data on three different conditions: one with automated daylight dimming, one with light switches and occupant engagement, and one control. The first two conditions resulted in 12% and 12.6% reductions in lighting system energy use respectively, while the control group experienced a 2.4% reduction from the baseline.

I’ve collected a few of my notes from the presentation in point-form below:

  • The Jack Davis building, when opened, came equipped with numerous energy saving features such as automated daylight-sensitive dimming, light shelves, and an efficient building envelope. Andrew related that when his team assessed the building, they found that the occupants of the building had disabled each of these in turn. For example, automated dimmers were routinely overridden because people disliked the rapid and unexpected fluctuations in ambient light, and light shelves had been blocked with blinds in favour of artificial light.
  • Andrew’s team undertook energy audits of employee workstations, conducting interviews with 1/4 of employees and providing an online tool for the other 3/4 to use. They assessed standby losses, lighting and printing habits, and other opportunities to engage employees in energy saving behaviour.
  • In response to occupant’s dissatisfaction with the rapid fluctuations caused by automated dimming, slow-dimming ballasts were installed to make sure that dimming was slow and less perceptible.
  • Simply installing light switches in individual rooms and areas in the building had a significant impact on energy use, in comparison to the existing light banks and centralized controls that were installed during building construction.
  • Andrew characterized occupant engagement as the “low-hanging fruit” of efforts to support energy efficiency and conservation.
  • He also specifically addressed his use of the term “occupant engagement” in contrast to “behaviour change,” the term more commonly used in the literature. He suggested that the tone of the former is more inclusive and less demanding than the latter: emphasizing that occupants can make choices rather than sacrifices.
  • The study revealed a clear relationship between energy savings and visits to the Pulse energy information dashboard, which was accessible to employees on the web without requiring a login.
  • Andrew noted the various standard techniques for motivating conservation, but drew attention to the idea that long term change can only be reliably produced through changes in norms surrounding energy use. His team partly addressed this by identifying and supporting “energy champions” to encourage others to become engaged.

The study itself confirmed many of my own findings, as well as echoing common themes in the literature, but also provided a great case combining lots of the relevant factors in occupant engagement. It was interesting to hear Andrew’s perspective on the problem, given his substantial credentials, and also to see the rollout of the new version of Pulse Energy’s software. I hope this will be the first in a series of webinars from Pulse and their collaborators.

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Simon Fraser University School of Interactive Arts & Technology