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The ambient device – made and tested + questionnaire results

I have posted a short video demonstrating the rotational behaviour of my ambient device and also illustrated what it will look like.



I did a questionnaire asking people from a street in Plympton a few questions to help justify my project. This is a sample of 44 houses in the same street located very close to both a primary and 2 secondary schools (my demographic target was family households). Here are the results:


How many people live in this house? 

1                    0

2                    13

3                    11

4                    16

5                    3

more            1


How many children live here?

0                    13

1                     10

2                     11

3                     15

4                      3

more              2

Summary more than 70% have at least 1 child


Do you care about how much energy you waste in your house?

yes                   34

no                     8

Summary 77% of people care about energy waste


If yes why do you care?

The cost                                                                                                               27

The effect it has on global warming                                                          6

worried about the future for my children’s children                         1

other                                                                                                                      0

Summary cost is the biggest driving factor


How many smart phones do you have in your house?

0                    13

1                     7

2                     19

3                     5

4                     0

more             0

Summary  70% have at least 1 smart phone


Do you have a smart meter in your house?

yes                    11

no                      33

Summary only 25% have a smart meter


If yes do you find it helpful?

yes                      2

no                        9

Summary over 80% don’t find it very helpful


If no why not?

hard to understand                                                                                      9

screen is too small                                                                                        3

not aesthetically suited to the interior of my home                       9

other  (most common answer)

Can only get information when within reading distance               4

Summary main reasons are its hard to understand and it doesn’t suit the house         


Would you use my proposed solution?

yes                    36

no                      8

Summary more than 80% would use it


If yes, why?

most common answers

It looks like something that is easy to use            31

It looks nice                                                                       14

Sounds helpful                                                                  28



Designing the ambient object

Thus far I have presented both technical, social and artistic perspectives on a wide range of aspects and have briefly mentioned cosmetic design. In the home creativity and art belong to the culture of the house and are themselves subdivided depending on the culture belonging to each room. Communal areas such as a lounge or open dining room offer canvases for inhabitants to decorate to their taste and kind of mould the atmosphere of that room to their preferences. Taking these factors into consideration, the design of my actual ambient device needs to fullfil certain criteria in order to a) be accepted b) become a part of the room in which it is situated in. As everyone is different, offering people the ability to theme their device adds a level of user touch and control to the device and subsequently allows for it to be adopted easier. The shell needs to also be very small, no bigger than a small clock, but at the same time it demands presence so should be “big” in a sense. That last sentence may sound contradictory, what I am trying to say is the shelf space needs to be minimal, but the size needs to be much bigger in order for it to achieve its purpose of petruding into the space in order to convey its message across to the inhabitants. Increasing the size can be done in many ways, I am going to explore ‘height’ and also ‘luminosity’ to increase its presence in the space. At the same time I am trying to also go down the root of a hybrid almost flower-like digital object. Flowers in the home are very decorative and have many psychological benefits as well as scents and a sense of natural connection. I want to try and imitate some of these attributes to further help develop the relationship an inhabitant has with this object.

So my main design goals are:

  1. Personalisation – Allowing the user to change the object to suit their own preferences – easier to accept and embrace
  2. Size (small desk space but exploit height… much like a flower)
  3. Luminosity – using light as well as motion as a communication channel
  4. Flower-like form – relating to some of the attributes of a flower… colour, shape, size, grace?

I am only writing about this now, but I have been searching and thinking of design ideas for a VERY long time (almost 5 months now) and after much searching and even some testing I have found what I consider to be a very close solution… fibre optics! These things are a blast from the past, in the 80’s they used to be really trendy, along with plasma orbs, larva lamps and disco balls!

Now I have also considered another element… demographics. My main target audience (I say main but there are many) are the parents in a family, trying to get them to change their culture around energy consumption and their view on their own energy footprint. These objects have sentimental value to most parents today (the ones who were teenagers in the 80’s) and as such, my idea of using fibre optics would further add to the acceptance of such a design.

My design needs to maintain the old retro feel of a fibre optic lamp but also add a contemporary “21st Century”  motive in order to appeal to more people. A sleek, minimal and digital looking design I feel will suit the requirements of the ambient device well. Below is a mock up of how I want my object to look like, notice how the colours are customisable. This feature will be linked toa  preferences database, depending on who is home at any particular time will determine the colour of the device in order to tailor itself to individuals and the people with the most influence in the house!

Updated Circuit

A few (but very important) changes to my old circuit. As I have more than 1 component needing 5v regulated power the only solution was to use the arduino’s onboard 5v regulator. The main concept behind the circuit is that the components (except for the 5v ones) are powered from the power supply directly – the arduino included. The arduino is only there to drive the logic however and now to also use the 5v regulator to create another power rail. I have also added 2 more things, a rocker switch (which has a little green LED light on) and a debugging LED. I want to create a product book for this project and so a debugging LED system will help the user find any problems with the board, it also helps me debug whilst coding!

Here is the updated circuit:

Ambient Device Circuit

Here is a diagram showing how I aim to power and connect all my components. As some components require different voltages and the circuit as a whole draws over an amp of current, I can’t power the components through the arduino board. Instead the logic is controlled there and the power comes directly from a power supply. This same power supply also supplies power to the arduino itself. The PIR sensor requires a 5v power supply so this will come from the arduino directly.

UPDATE: This circuit is actually wrong! Will upload a new one shortly… basically I need a 5v rail to supply power to both the PIR sensor and the DC Motor. I’ll add this on the left to keep things as neat as possible.

Obtaining the data from Current Cost Meter

My whole project relies on the ability to monitor energy levels in a house, using the current cost 128 unit I have access to.  As I am trying to create a whole system from scratch, I am going to have to write a module in my application that parses the xml stream over rs232 from one of these units and log the information to my database. I have been playing around for a few weeks now with XML ‘files’ but not a serial stream. I can so far read the XML document and log each individual element to my database (mySQL using JDBC connector).

I have recently spotted this: which seams to be a great library for pulling and parsing the XML stream from the serial connection to the meter. I do however realise that when it comes to demo this project, I won’t be able to actually demo it with a real current cost meter due to the fact there won’t possibly be a way of setting one up on campus! Bearing this in mind I will focus on more integral parts to this project and rely on simulated data until I make this bridging module myself.

For these testing purposes I have been using the same XML format as the current cost meter spits out… available here:

Edit: Forget that… I have just seen that there is a pachube application available (and for Linux) which submits the cc data to their server on the cloud. This means I can demo my app by subscribing to the feed through the university internet! Much better than a simulated feed! Just need to implement a subscribe module in my app. The feed can be found here: For this to work however I have to modify the code to match the polling frequency for my actual current cost meter. Here is a picture showing it running on my Viglen MPC-L:

Here is a live screenshot of my hourly historical view which changes every hour (even in this blog post):

The ‘Brain’ / central intelligence – criticisms and my response

Thinking about the concept of data objectification and Human SYSTEM interaction (HSI) I need to start thinking about how the user/inhabitant will interact with the vast sea of data that resides and exists within their house. An idea I want to pursue is that a central but fully ubiquitous central intelligence point will handle all the data and transform it so it is interpretable by the user. The user never interacts with this part but it has to be present and whats more it has to be on 24/7. This means that it has to be on a device which is extremely low powered and one which is small enough to be out the way. Enter the Viglen MPC-L. I purchased this a while ago for experimentation and as it uses a mere 10watts it costs less than £10 a year! One of the main problems with the whole “instrumentation” part of Smarter Planet solutions is low powered, low cost instrumentation… enabling the inanimate to be connected all the time. This solves that issue, although there are many other solutions out there for which this can run on, sheevaplug, guruplug and low powered mini-ITX systems with atom / ARM processors.

So why a central intelligence?

One of the criticisms I had received about my initial solution was the fact that a centralised intelligence using event objectification would isolate the user from the object itself and actually inadvertently disdain  itself from the bigger picture, further discrediting the system and the user’s interactions with the object.  If we think how people talk with people, all of our actions come from our brain. My hand will move to shake someone elses if my brain sends the signals to move my arm and grip the other persons hand (and possibly smile). When I am shaking someone’s hand I don’t think, “oh I’m shaking his hand because his brain told him too” or “im shaking hands with his brain”. We can’t see the brain but we can see the hand we are shaking and the person infront of us. We associate this action to be from the person. In my solution I want the object to behave as a front end to my whole house and the system that runs ubiquitously. This is the entry point for where the user will interact and from where the user will obtain the necessary information to influence positive changes to reduce energy consumption. The backend disappears from the user’s view of the system and subsequently the user accepts that what he or she is “talking” with is actually the persona of the house’s mood (based currently on energy consumption). The bits that the user will see and interact with (the arduino object and the android app) represent the body of the house, much like how the human body is the frontal to our central nervous system.

A body without a brain is lifeless, a brain without a body is powerless.

This is also true with technology.