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I see ghost loads: Ghost Hunter – playing as learning.


Interface of Ghost Hunter.

In the paper “Ghost hunter: parents and children playing together to learn about energy consumption,” authors Amartya Banerjee and Michael S. Horn present an interactive “hide-and-seek” style game called “Ghost Hunter,” which is targeted to parents and children as a tool to seek out hidden sources of energy consumption in their homes (i.e. ghost/phantom/vampire loads). While this isn’t the first tool that I’ve looked at that is targeted at children (recall the poor sinking Polar Bear), there have been very few that target this demographic, so it’s nice to see an attempt being made in this area.


The back of the device, shows the various components that contribute to its function.

The tool itself is the marriage of an electro-magnetic field (EMF) detector and a mobile tablet computer, such that by bringing Ghost Hunter close to an electrical current it activates the detector. When the system is activated it beeps, vibrates and provides some visual feedback… the greater the current, the further away Ghost Hunter will be activated – suggesting that one has to really get up close to objects on standby power to detect their energy use.

At it’s most basic, Ghost Hunter is a tool for learning – for both children and parents. The aim  of the study was for Ghost Hunter to increase general awareness of energy consumption in the home (using the kWh as a measure), as well as the different rates of consumption coming from a variety of appliances while on or off. Moreover, the tool also makes obvious the fact that many devices consume electricity while not in use.

The researchers tested out a prototype with seven families with young children. They did this without much instruction to the families, but did explain the basic workings of the tool and then let the families experiment in using Ghost Hunter at home, while the researcher followed them, recording their every move with a video camera for about 30 minutes. This was followed up with a brief interview. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the parents were quite involved in the experiment and typically engaged with the child(ren) through assistance (physical or otherwise), or by making comments or posing questions in order to spur learning. 

It appears that the researchers did not use a pre-post structure to look for actual changes in energy awareness or understanding of things such as phantom power. However, they do suggest that this was one of the results of the experience. There was also some suggestion that learning occurred in terms of understanding measures of energy, such as watts and kWh – however this did not appear to have been tested in any formal way. On the whole, a different kind of study would be needed to demonstrate these findings more concretely.

I would be really interested to see how such a tool might be used without the constant presence of a researcher. I’ve noted that parents often hand over tablet computers to children in public as a form of diversion. Anecdotally speaking, I’ve never observed these to be the kinds of devices that parent and child play on together, so I’m pleasantly surprised at the image of families curiously going through the home together looking for sources of energy leakage. I’m not convinced, however, that this is how this tool might be used in the field. That is, I’m not sure if it’s the design of the tool, or the method of the research that lead to the observed use of the Ghost Hunter – more research is needed.

Source: Amartya Banerjee and Michael S. Horn. 2014. Ghost hunter: parents and children playing together to learn about energy consumption. In Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction (TEI ’14). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 267-274.

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