It’s dinner time for baby Otso at his cosy family home on the outskirts of Helsinki.
But this is no ordinary Finnish house. Parents Topi and Heli are testing out a new system which allows them to monitor their energy consumption in real time.
“We have quite a few sensors installed. Firstly, monitoring the fridge and freezer, basically making sure they are operating ok and that the compressors are fine, then the microwave oven – with the baby we are finding that we are using it more and more – and then currently for the tea kettle just for the general interest to see how much these things are actually using.”
Pasi Hurri runs the company that processes the information flow from Topi’s electrical appliances.
There’s a lot of data to be processed, measured and displayed.
The family can follow their energy consumption on a laptop, or a touch-screen mobile phone.
“As opposed to ordinary energy bills, we are providing the real-time wattage to people, so one minute after the consumption event they can really see what was the peak power that their devices were consuming.”
Topi Mikkola : “For example just cleaning the freezer showed that it has started to use roughly 15% less energy via defrosting.”
Topi’s experiences here in Helsinki are the beginning of a wider European Union research project to develop new ways of helping consumers monitor their energy use.
The software Topi uses at home is being developed by Giulio Jacucci.
He believes mobile phones are the best way to take this energy awareness concept to the next level.
“We use this to evaluate in real settings how people actually use mobile applications.”
Two cameras on the phone and one around the neck record how someone uses the software.
Giulio’s aim is to make the system, known as Energy Life, as intuitive as possible.
A major focus of his work is the on-screen display:
“What we can see here is that we have represented in cards in a carousel different devices in a house, electrical devices and their consumption, and also we have a card for the whole house.”
Users can see if an appliance in their home is switched on or off, whether it’s using more power than it should, and how much energy it has used in the past.
Getting the interface right is the challenge:
“What we’re finding out with the experiments is that the 3D interface and the touch, so the natural interaction, is very good, and helps the user connect to energy information in a better way. However we are finding problems in designing the right language in the interface, to label information in a way that is easily understandable by users.
Giulio turned to his homeland of Italy for expert analysis of how to display information about energy use to consumers.
Each time the Energy Life software is updated this team at the University of Padua runs around 20 tests with different volunteers to see how they react.
The person is told to carry out a series of tasks to track their energy use, while the researchers record how they interact with the software on the phone.
Luciano Gamberini, Psychology Professor, University of Padova:
“To do this we are using very different methodologies, we use a lot of structured video analysis, we also use classic methods from cognitive science and we try to give suggestions in real time to the technical developers. Every day we test the work done the day before by the engineers who are developing the project, and we send them feedback saying ‘be careful, three out of five people made a mistake with this operation’.”
Luciano’s team is not just trying to identify usability problems, but also understand people’s attitudes to energy use.
In an early round of written questionnaires he found that most people claimed to have very good energy saving habits at home.
He then used a lie detector-style test like this one based on question response times.
The results were quite a surprise. Luciano Gamberini:
“The statistics are completely different from those revealed by the questionnaire. Some of the behaviour about sustainability, like leaving lights switched on at home, wasn’t credible. Almost 50 per cent of people lied in these questionnaires.”
To be widely accepted by users the Energy Life system has to be easy to learn, effective and engaging.
Engineer Massimo Bertoncini is advising the project on how to take the software to market.
To do that, he says, you need to follow one straightforward rule:
“We believe that the consumer wants to have just a small amount of information shown in a very clear way”.
Back in Finland, the outside temperature is minus 23 degrees.
After six months testing the system, Topi sees the constant flow of information as the main benefit for his family.
“It shows where the energy goes, so of course that makes you think ‘is this really needed?’
“You get the feedback immediately instead of waiting for the energy company to send you the bill half a year later.”
The researchers in this project believe most householders could cut their bills by 15 per cent if they were more aware of their energy consumption.