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eMeter: Mobile metering of household appliances

EMobile device

The user interface (left to right): Consumption, history, measurement, and device inventory.

In the paper “Evaluating mobile phones as energy consumption feedback devices,” authors Markus Weiss, Claire-Michelle Loock, Thorsten Staake, Friedemann Mattern, and Elgar Fleisch, of ETH Zurich’s Institute for Pervasive Computing and Information Management departments consider the potential for a meaningful relationship between increasingly pervasive smart metering systems and and smart phones as a means to deliver quick, timely information to the user.

Recognizing that clear and timely feedback can have the effect of reducing energy use by 5-15%, basic feedback is the jumping off point for this study. However, the researchers were also aware that certain kinds of feedback can have the effect of maximizing energy savings and thus were sure to incorporate past research into the design of their tool.

Firstly, they followed the time-honoured KISS principle, and developed a tool that would not require users to have any technical skill generally thought to be needed when interacting with electrical components such as the fuse box. Secondly, they looked for a tool that would already be integrated into the daily lives of the participants as studies have shown that the initial buzz created with new and flashy tools eventually wears out, and it’s best to try to fit the tool into already existing habits, such as the almost universal habit of carrying a mobile phone. Thirdly, the information has to be timely, and continuous feedback is understood to be superior to cyclical feedback (say, every time you receive your monthly energy bill). Finally, it is beneficial for information to be as disaggregated as possible – that is, if can see the impact of actions in one room, this is superior to information about actions throughout a household as a whole. Better still, is feedback associated with very specific actions – the flip of a switch, for example.

The research paper does reference a series of studies the authors initiated, including a random survey to further understand what might be practical in terms of developing an ecofeedback tool for the home. They found that the most highly valued feedback mechanism would perhaps be doubly smart: a smart phone that communicates with a smart meter.  This is not altogether surprising given the ubiquity of these particular mobile devices. As a consequence, a number of researchers have developed very different mobile ecofeedback apps, such as EcoPath, GreenSweeper, UbiGreen, and Power Agent.

After developing and then testing the eMeter with 25 participants, the authors where able to confirm a receptiveness to energy feedback delivered on a mobile phone. They valued at-a-glance-feedback for energy intensive appliances the most. Further, action-guiding feedback that goes beyond displaying aggregated information was found to be very important. Interestingly, functions meant to aid users through motivational support (e.g., the setting of a savings goal) are not perceived as important, nor are those that deal with social norms (e.g., compare to others). Naturally, these tests are on perceived usefulness, and are not yet applied. It will be interesting to see how such proven motivators work, if at all in an applied situation (where longer term behavior is being measured). The neat thing about the research being done by the folks at the Bits to Energy Lab is that they appear to have the network and resources to do the applied, behavior-based research that will contribute considerable knowledge to this field.


Weiss, M., Loock, C. M., Staake, T., Mattern, F., & Fleisch, E. (2012). Evaluating mobile phones as energy consumption feedback devices. Mobile and Ubiquitous Systems: Computing, Networking, and Services, 63-77. Web: http://www.vs.inf.ethz.ch/publ/papers/weismark-evalua-2010.pdf 

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