Design Mobile Science Technology

On Wattson and Electrisave…

Thanks to a fascinating conversation on haddock the other day, I’m now completely obsessed with a brand new class of personal lifestyle gizmos – a class that is very much in sync with the emergent energy puritanism that I find myself unexpectedly interested in after An Inconvenient Truth. The class of objects is ‘things that help you develop an understanding of your personal energy consumption’, and thus give you a handle by which to control it.

My boss at UpMyStreet had a line he used recurrently about statistics”Everything measured goes up”. Specifically, he meant that the act of measuring itself creates an impetus for change and competitiona pressure to move a figure towards whichever extreme is (sometimes arbitrarily given the absence of context) defined as ‘better’. It’s a comment on the nature of observation, feedback loops and the selection of the criteria by which you measure success.

The energy-tracking gadgets that have come to fascinate me hope that by exposing these figures, a pressure will manifest that drives energy consumption downwards, and that these actions will justify the expense to the earth spent in making and powering the trackers themselves.

This beautiful object is the Wattson available from It’s a handmade object that costs a significantly alarming 350 of your Earth Pounds. You attach a sensor near to your elecricity meter and can then place the object itself pretty much anywhere in the home where it will communicate with the sensor wirelessly. It will then display in real time both an ambient and a digital numerical display of the amount of electricity being used in your house, so you can see the benefits of turning off a light or microwaving a meal or having a shower. It can alsoapparentlyconnect to the internet via your computer and broadcast data about your energy consumption to online social environments. But more about that stuff in a minute.

Of course you don’t have to go quite this extravagent to get this kind of functionality. The wooden sides and iPod-like white of the display are clearly designed to fit into some hybrid modernist but environmentalist minimal aestheticand I suspect that it’s really the visual or artistic appeal of the object that really floats my boatbut you can get cheaper and less ridiculous devices that do similar jobs.

The Electrisave Meter is a very different-looking beast – it’s all grey plastic and LCD displays and cables. But then again it’s also the rather more manageable ¬£80. But somehow it doesn’t appeal to me in the same way.

There are two particular things that occur to me about these devices and my own (and potentially other people’s) reactions to them. The first is back to the nature of scoring and measuring. I went to see a rather introductory talk by Judith Donath when I was last in the US around signalling theory and she talked a bit about what signalling actually referred to in particular cases. She talked about the man who buys a fast and flashy car, who probably thinks that he’s communicating in some ways that he is virile and manly and exciting, where in fact in pure signalling terms he’s communicating no more and no less than that he can afford to buy a fast car. Still, being able to buy a fast car actually may be a good thing to advertise. She also talked a bit about the controversial Handicap principle which talked about why there might be advantage in reproductive terms to develop completely impractical or ridiculously showy traitslike the tails on peacocks. The proposal of this particular controversial theory was that the generation of these costly attributes might actually be designed to indicate genetic health and vigour, since only particularly strong and healthy candidates could afford to be so wasteful.

Anyway the thing that leapt to my mind when thinking about this stuff was that anything that’s scored can have at least two positive states. Behaviour that is good is often rewarded, but the inability of all people to be the best on these grounds creates a space where bad behaviour can be viewed as revolutionary or cool or subversive. Lowering energy consumption might be viewed in positive ways by many people, but giving people an easy way to display their own patterns may just as easily lead people into showy conspicuous consumption and indications that they can afford to be wasteful. Metrics are always troubling, conflicting and often uniquely vulnerable to any forms of interpretative activity.

The other thing that occurred to me was that I’m noticing an increasing instinct in my own life towards trying to capture and track as much information about what I’m doing or what I have done as possible – and to be able to get it out somewhere on the internet where I might be able to do things with it. From my playcounts in iTunes and my profile through to my web stats and geotagged Flickr photos all the way to my sudden almost overwhelming fascination with tracking/displaying my energy consumptions and getting programmatic access to my Oyster card data, over and over again I’m finding myself interested in capturing and making sense of the activities of my life in an ambient and backgrounded way. I want to know what I’ve watched on television, how many days of sunshine I’ve experienced this year and how well my mood as correlated with them, how much I’m sleeping, how much I’ve drank, how much bandwidth I use up in a week and how loud my neighbourhood is compared to the average.

Or more specifically I don’t want to know this stuff, I want to be able to capture it invisibly so that it can be knitted together and sense made of it and data made discoverable and searchable at some point in the future, when the urge or need takes me. This is going to be one of the great benefits of ambient/pervasive computing or everyware – not the tracking of objects but the tracking and collating of you yourself through objects. The citizen of the future will have some of their personal fuzziness removed as the sharp data edges of their lives are captured and tracked for personal use. And I’m not sure what I think about it. Except that it’s fascinating.

Do you know about any more products like this? Things that display in interesting ways the energy consumption or patterns of consumption around your home? What do you think of these ones in particular? Should I get one?

17 replies on “On Wattson and Electrisave…”

Have you heard Bruce Sterling talk on this matter? (I’m sured you have…but in case not) he’s good – on RFIDs for the kind of self-tracking you mention alongside a lot of other interesting stuff. He’s also really into oyster card tracking.
a couple of mp3s here and here.

Welcome to the hell that was my life when I was working on Future Currents with the Design Council last summer. Working on an energy project will make you become so anal about checking your own personal consumption i tell you…
There’s a nice bunch of great product ideas here, not sure they’re all commercially available yet…

Why does saving energy have to be a “product”? Can’t it just be something that we accept the need to do ‚Äì a by-product, perhaps?
My quarterly electricity bill already includes detailed information about my power consumption and my greenhouse gas emissions – do I really need another electric geegaw (plus 12V power brick) to tell me I’m a good boy?

Voltcraft makes a cheap (20 euro’s but ugly though) energy meter that allows you to keep check on the usage of specific machines. Not sure if they make a UK version since it’s a german company. There’s also extension cords out there that automagically turn off machines when to go into standby. Those are actually usefull although not very flashy either. I guess the question is; do you simply want to project the image of the concious eco fashionista or do you actually want to do something.

I’d be interested to work out what the most sensible way of breaking down the energy consumption is. I don’t think the Wattson’s method of displaying your ongoing consumption is: sometimes you will need to run large appliances, and in the evenings you’ll need heat and light. What I’d like is something that records how much energy I use in total over the day/week/month, and can produce graphs of that, so I can make little changes to daily habits and see my energy usage trend downwards — that would be a much more powerful motivator, I think.

I’ve seen a few products like that, I started looking at the infra red based data transfer standards the leccy man uses when he comes round to read you meter. I’d like a simple devices that just ferries that data over wifi/bluetooth so i can do what I want with it. What I was really after though was something to go between the circuit breaker and its little socket so I can track energy consumption be each supply ring, eg lighting, sockets, heating, cooker.

“This is going to be one of the great benefits of ambient/pervasive computing or everyware – not the tracking of objects but the tracking and collating of you yourself through objects.”
This sentence works just as well with the word ‘benefits’ replaced by ‘threats’. It all depends who gets to do the tracking and collating, I suppose.

as phil states, the risks are proportionate to the potential benefits. but in all this I’m wondering if you really need data to help you identify and change your consumption patterns and this could be music as much as energy. we’re awash with information and data now and i feel less in control than i ever did. people [read me 🙂 ] need boundaries – bring back rationing! data rationing!

Dead simple example is the pedometer. If you hand out pedometers, people walk more. Some people will change the way they get to work, just to be able to walk more, to make the little numbers reach a higher sum at the end of the week. I’ve seen people give up their cars and start taking public transport, just to get the extra steps in.
The positive result is less traffic (specifically for the office — we’ve had a couple of mass hand-outs of pedometers), healthier people, emptier elevators, etc. But noone is doing it for the positive effects. They’re all REALLY in it for the measurement 😉

Oh, i wish i could say great minds think alike, but I am just swimming in the shallows of your meme trail.
I have been drooling over the wattson too, I am about to move into a house and want to data-space it up, sensors and network all over. Can i view the house state online 🙂
and a part of this project is to record the possible impact of trying to green as much as i can an old house.
whether it actually becomes a good idea or instead i start to drown in all the data withough any real understanding is something that will be fun to discover.
Oh and the other idea I had after reading the wattson web site, boutique energy companies, companies that manage and green your energy needs as much as is possible. Doubt it will catch on but hey.

In answer to Laurie, Wattson has an onboard memory that stores data for up to 1 year. PC/MAC software is provided that allows you to graph your energy data for up to several years if need be, downloading the data via Wattsons USB port.

I can’t find the article now, but I read recently that drivers of cars with MPG monitors (those little heads-up displays that tell you your fuel efficiency) are very effective in making people drive more efficiently.
Personally not sure about people worrying about what the HUD is saying rather than watching the road, but then I am a biker!

Lucy Kimbell ( has been doing great work for years in this area of personal measurement and ‘auditing’.
And icepick has been the daddy of web-based datalogging since the late 90s. Good to see it’s still up and running (
what I really want is a way of logging car data straight to my blog – mileage, petrol consumption, speed, time in motion etc. Maybe even get TomTom wired up so all my journeys can be logged automatically. Any ideas on how to do this?

timw: I posted a similar question about car data to the list a while back. A friend of mine works with car industry data and I said everyone would want this in 5 years. He said, no they wouldn’t.
i’ll post the email and some answers at but basically there is a good homebrew car computer hacking scene and it is something we can do.
To start with I am just going to log when i buy petrol, how much i spend, what the milage counter is when i buy it etc. I will stick a gps in the car as well, initially its going to be a manual hack but eventually automate it as much as possible. I envisaged when I got home the data was uploaded from the car to the home computer system for recording, analysis (hell, even basic family finance management could do with this) etc.

What about the Intelliplug – it’s not tracking you usage in the same way as the wattson but it’s more of a ‘direct action’ device:
It’s a pretty simple idea, and for people with a computer at home it makes a lot of sense, and potentialy savings, too. Their product blurb explains it much better than I can:
“Turn the desktop computer on, and the OneClick product instantly switches power to the peripherals (monitor, scanner, printer, games console, speakers, lights) etc. Switch it off, and it turns them all off – with just one click. The OneClick product takes care of everything, automatically.”
And if that’s interested you, have a read through this article about the ‘1 Watt’ campaign:

I know exactly what you mean about getting anal about measuring energy usage. About a month ago I’d never really looked at my electricity bill, I just paid it (as I assume most people do). I then started learning more about climate change and decided to start analysing the electricity usage. After buying a Watt Meter from Maplin’s, I started monitoring EVERY device in the house to try and understand where our energy was being used the most.
I have now completed an audit of the entire house, and I keep daily records of the electricity meter. What I’ve found is that I’m now becoming more and more obsessed with every Watt, even to the point that I didn’t buy an XBox 360 because I found it uses 160 Watts. The house has, during this process, become more energy efficient (due to light bulbs, child education etc), and our usage has dropped from an average of 18 units per day to 14 units a day. I’m currently working on monitoring the meter at intervals through the day (when time allows), to try an identify habits that are wasting yet more power.
It’s certainly been good to find somebody else who’s thinking along the same lines!

Don’t worry yet about being Anal you have a long way to go. I have a weather station and now have over 2 million records for the last 3 years.
I have yet to find anything that will record what your electricity usage is without resorting to reading the meter daily. I have read about it being done, I think on the MisterHouse website, but you need a meter which has a flashing red LED to do it.
You could use an Electrisave, about £75 to see what is going on at any time. I have one and it works very well.

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