In the paper “SINAIS from Fanal: design and evaluation of an art-inspired eco-feedback system,” authors Valentina Nisi, Nuno Jardim Nunes, Filipe Quintal, and Mary Barreto present SINAIS from Fanal, an ecofeedback tool guided by artistic sensibilities.
The main project was build around SINAIS sensor system, a low-cost netbook that performs all the tasks associated with providing basic feedback on energy consumption at the appliance level. A total of thirty homes were equipped with this tool for a period of nine weeks, during which time a reduction of energy consumption to 9% was documented. The authors of that study noted that the participants who spent more time interacting with the tool experienced a greater reduction in energy consumption. As such, this project was meant to test whether a more aesthetic interface could lead to greater interaction and, hopefully, even greater energy savings.
Eight homes were selected to receive a modified interface, which displayed imagery based on the local endemic forest landscape, thus the name Fanal. The default imagery is that of a very foggy landscape and increased interaction with SINAIS allows for the fog to lift and reveal a lovely vista. Moreover, time lapse photography was used to create a sense of movement and energy consumption was mapped to these movements. While not explicitly stated, I’m assuming that with greater consumption came a faster frame-rate of the time-laps imagery. Further, because SINAIS allows for data collection at the level of appliance, the final prototype also mapped energy use events, such as the microwave being used. Flowers bloomed in the landscape for low consumption events and animals appeared for medium to high consumption events.
This modified prototype was installed for four weeks in December in eight homes. It appeared that there was less interaction with this system than the previous one, and that some of the users found the new interface confusing and less intuitive than the graphical interface they have become accustomed to.
I’m actually glad this study was done, even if it has a very small sample and had some other methodological flaws. I too, have wondered if abstracting the concrete data associated with off-the-shelf energy meters might add a certain interest and/or emotional weight to the issue of energy waste. In fact, the interface presented here is not unlike a prototype project of mine, Wn Wn. It appears, at least in a few cases, that obscuring the data with imagery confused the end-user, who was not sure how to interpret the changing nature of the interface. A few of the participants suggested that designers would have to find a way to merge or toggle between these two kinds of information delivery methods.
While some works of art can be quite successful while obscuring the artist’s original intention or “message”, leaving a lot of room for interpretation by the viewer, I don’t think this is where the value of an artistic approach lies the field of ecofeedback. By definition, feedback should be clear in order to guide action – and so to it would have to be with ecofeedback technologies that are guided by more artistic sensibilities. That being said, the skill of a good artist can imbue the most banal object in the world (e.g. a bowl of fruit) with the kind of emotion not expected by the viewer, thus transforming the object into something interesting, beautiful, and moving. So let’s not lose hope on the power of an artistic approach to this problem. What we need are the right artists for the job. There are many examples of art as an effective mechanism for social and environmental change.