A California company has begun distributing a device called the "orb," a glowing sphere that changes color based on energy consumption. Writer Clive Thompson explains that the orb's ambient information proves how successful subtlety can be.
BOB GARFIELD: Environmental responsibility is an issue on everybody's radar these days, and this month in Wired Magazine, Clive Thompson describes a new way for energy consumers to be aware of their consumption. It is an orb. It is awesome. Clive [LAUGHS], welcome back. CLIVE THOMPSON: Good to be here. BOB GARFIELD: Now, this is about ambient technology. Tell me what that means. CLIVE THOMPSON: Well, ambient technology is a way of delivering information in a more calming way. The idea arose about 10 years ago in response to the fact that computers, particularly computers, were becoming much more stressful because they had so many sources of information that they're forcing you to stare at. There's email and there's browsers, and now there's YouTube and all this stuff. And so people were getting sort of drowned in all the information that they had to stare at.
And the idea was, well, maybe we should try and take some information and just sort of put it in the periphery of your eye span, as it were, you know, so that something you sort of glance at every once in a while, you don't have to stare at it. BOB GARFIELD: Like a wall clock or a thermometer? CLIVE THOMPSON: Precisely. A wall clock is a classic piece of ambient information, because even though you're not really aware of ever looking at it, you always generally know what time it is. And so it's a non-stressful source of information.
And it turns out that when they do studies, they find that ambient information, people actually retain it, sometimes even better than they do the stuff that they're staring at. BOB GARFIELD: Now comes the orb, which is a new medium. Tell me about the history of the orb and then we can talk about this current application. CLIVE THOMPSON: Well, the orb is the invention of a guy named David Rose. He's got a company called Ambient Devices. And his idea was okay, let's try taking the important information off the computer screen and into the periphery of your attention. And he wanted a little, beautiful thing that would be sort of pleasant to have sitting in the corner of your desk. And so he thought of a glowing orb.
And his first application, and everyone loved this, was that you would set it to monitor [LAUGHING] your stock portfolio so that it would glow green or whatever if – and you could pick the color - it would glow green if things were going well and sort of it would slowly darken to purple or whatever if your stock portfolio was going down, and so the idea being that you would sort of generally know whether or not your financial health was being taken care of without having to go to E*Trade, you know, five times a day or whatever and look at your portfolio.
And it really worked. It turned out when they did studies they found that people were about - like I'm sketchy on the exact amount - but it was around like 30 or 40 percent more likely to do active trading, you know, once every month or so, if they had an orb because they could see, wait a minute, something's wrong with my portfolio. BOB GARFIELD: It's a way to synthesize a lot of information just with a color spectrum. CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, exactly. BOB GARFIELD: So how did the orb come to be embraced for energy consumption?
CLIVE THOMPSON: What happened was that an engineer at a Californian energy firm decided to see if he could hack people's perceptions to make them a little more aware of their energy usage by using orbs. And what he did was he basically bought about a thousand of these orbs and put them in people's houses and configured them so that they would glow different colors based on whether or not the grid was being really stressed.
If it was really being overused, at total capacity, you know, it would glow red or whatever, and if the grid was actually not being used, it would glow green or whatever, and the idea being that people would sort of have a sense of what the energy environment around them is like and they would react accordingly. They would turn things off when energy was getting overstressed and too expensive, and they would save themselves money, and they would save, you know, their energy usage for when it was, you know, glowing green and things were less stressed.
And sure enough, the same thing happened. People actually very effortlessly started changing their energy usage habits and they actually, they conserved a lot more energy because they had - suddenly they had information on what was going on around them. BOB GARFIELD: Now, in your piece in Wired, you actually wrote about a second stage of awareness, and that is when your awareness isn't a closely-held secret but your own energy consumption is made available to a larger audience. Tell me how that works. CLIVE THOMPSON: It's called the sentinel effect. If you let other people know what you're doing, their scrutiny will sort of freak out you out and you'll try and do better, as it were.
So if everyone were able to - imagine like a word where, like, I've got my energy orb or whatever, and it broadcasts, you know, through my blog or my website to all my friends, Clive's energy usage over the last week was, you know, up 20 percent or down 10 percent. You can sort of imagine this would very quickly take on, like, almost like a social virus type of effect where people would be almost actively reducing even more of their energy usage so they won't look like a complete energy glutton in front of their friends. You know, it would have a really wonderful social effect.
There's already a little experiment like this happening. Over in Britain there's this cool company that have created this thing called the Watson, and it's sort of like a little glowing brick. It does the same thing as the orb. It glows different colors based on your energy usage.
But the really cool thing is it's networked to the Internet, so it feeds that information online, if you want it to, and you can go online and you can see, you can compare yourself with other Watson users and see who's reduced the most energy.
And the other cool thing is you can see sort of how much in total all the Watson users have saved. That to me is really interesting, because one of the problems with personal conservation is that it feels like it's just a drop in the bucket. Like why am I bothering to turn off this light? It's not going to do anything.
Whereas, if you could go online and see that a million people had all turned off a light and you just saved [LAUGHING] 100 megawatts or the equivalent of 24 hours functioning of one coal-fired plant, that would really start to feel much more exciting and you'd be more likely to turn off that light. BOB GARFIELD: Way cool. Clive, thank you so much for joining us. CLIVE THOMPSON: Glad to be here. BOB GARFIELD: Clive Thompson writes about technology. His piece about the orb appears in the August issue of Wired Magazine. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips and Nazanin Rafsanjani - who is getting married this weekend - and edited this week by me. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Andrya Ambro and Madeleine Elish. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcast at onthemedia.org and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media from WNYC. Brooke will be back in two weeks. I'm Bob Garfield.