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The ECOS Project: An interactive simulation to promote an ECO-friendly universe

  • Polson, Debra
Publication Date
Dec 20, 2012
Queensland University of Technology ePrints Archive


<b>The ECOS Project</b> is a playful simulation that uses real-time weather data to simulate how a local green energy building may or may not operate efficiently in various global climates. Visitors can experiment with both the energy generation and consumption settings to view, compare and consider the impact such decisions and control variations can effect human comfort and energy efficiency levels. ECOS has been developed for presentation on a large screen multi-touch installation, The Cube, in the new Science and Engineering Centre (SEC) at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). The SEC features a tri-generational system and contains a complex sensor network to track energy usage. In collaboration with the SEC building managers, ECOS uses the energy consumption and generation data of the actual buildings in which it is presented. This data has been incorporated into an interactive simulation, which is both engaging to users and highly informative. The ECOS project draws on the practice of <b>Eco-Visualisation</b>, a term used to encapsulate the important merging of environmental data visualization with the philosophy of sustainability. Holmes (2007) uses the term Eco-Visualisation (EV) to refer to data visualisations that ‘display the real time consumption statistics of key environmental resources for the goal of promoting ecological literacy’. EVs are commonly artifacts of interaction design, information design, interface design and industrial design, but are informed by various intellectual disciplines that have shared interests in sustainability. As a result of surveying a number of projects, Pierce, Odom and Blevis (2008) outline strategies for designing and evaluating effective EVs, including ‘connecting behavior to material impacts of consumption, encouraging playful engagement and exploration with energy, raising public awareness and facilitating discussion, and stimulating critical reflection.’ Consequently, Froehlich (2010) and his colleagues also use the term ‘Eco-feedback technology’ to describe the same field. ‘Green IT’ is another variation which Tomlinson (2010) describes as a ‘field at the juncture of two trends… the growing concern over environmental issues’ and ‘the use of digital tools and techniques for manipulating information.’ The ECOS Project team is guided by these principles, but more importantly, propose an example for how these principles may be achieved. The ECOS Project presents a simplified interface to the very complex domain of thermodynamic and climate modeling. From a mathematical perspective, the simulation can be divided into two models, which interact and compete for balance – the comfort of ECOS’ virtual denizens and the ecological and environmental health of the virtual world. The comfort model is based on the study of psychometrics, and specifically those relating to human comfort. This provides baseline micro-climatic values for what constitutes a comfortable working environment within the QUT SEC buildings. The difference between the ambient outside temperature (as determined by polling the Google Weather API for live weather data) and the internal thermostat of the building (as set by the user) allows us to estimate the energy required to either heat or cool the building. Once the energy requirements can be ascertained, this is then balanced with the ability of the building to produce enough power from green energy sources (solar, wind and gas) to cover its energy requirements. Calculating the relative amount of energy produced by wind and solar can be done by, in the case of solar for example, considering the size of panel and the amount of solar radiation it is receiving at any given time, which in turn can be estimated based on the temperature and conditions returned by the live weather API. Some of these variables can be altered by the user, allowing them to attempt to optimize the health of the building. The variables that can be changed are the budget allocated to green energy sources such as the Solar Panels, Wind Generator and the Air conditioning to control the internal building temperature. These variables influence the energy input and output variables, modeled on the real energy usage statistics drawn from the SEC data provided by the building managers. <b>Research Background and Methodology</b> In 2010 it was reported that ‘30-40 percent of all primary energy produced Worldwide is used in buildings’ (Howe 2010). Despite this, the enormous impact of building related activities and systems on natural resources are often hidden from public view. Energy consumption and generation in buildings is seldom reported, and while building visitors are frequently told that switching off lights or installing solar panels have a positive impact on energy usage, the lack of context within these statements makes them poor motivators. Through effective information and interaction design, playful interfaces were developed to bridge this gap between understanding and action by presenting data to students and the public in a way that contextualizes energy consumption. The ECOS project team relied on expert consultation and iterative design processes to finalize a design that presents a dramatization of the relationship between climate and energy consumption. ECOS focuses on the principle that humans can have both a positive and negative impact on ecosystems with both local and global consequence. Its objectives are aligned with many of the core elements of effective eco-visualizations, its primary goals being encouraging playful engagement and exploration with green energy related data and stimulating critical reflection. <b>Research Significance and Impact</b> This project transforms complex data and concepts into playful and informative interfaces simulating sustainable energy systems for inner city buildings. Adapting practice-based research methods to maximize the effectiveness of collaboration with university, construction, government and education experts. Most significantly, demonstrating the vital role of the visual and technical disciplines in the promoting of emerging social and environmental concerns by producing interactive models for exploration and cooperation. The ECOS Project received $200 000 in development funding from the Vice Chancellery and the QUT Science and Technology Precinct Project plus inkind contributions from QUT in technology provision and support as well as extensive consultation time from various industry partners. The ECOS Project was launched along with the Cube Installation at the SEC Opening ceremony in February 2013 by Australia’s then Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Hundreds of Queensland primary and secondary students have toured and participated in education programs designed around the ECOS Project. Resulted in the following journal publication: Polson, D., & Selin, C. (2012) The ECOS green buildings project : data dramatization, visualization and manipulation. Lecture Notes in Computer Science : ICT as Key Technology against Global Warming, 7453, pp. 33-43.

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