By Vivian Cheng
It is the classic winter dilemma: the temperature is 26 degrees outside (around -3 for all you metric fans), but step inside and it’s sweltering. When you try to fix this by peeling off your sweater, it becomes a little too chilly. Keep the layers on, and you start sweating. Now multiply this by everyone in the building, each with their own temperature preference, and you’ve got a real problem.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is working on a project that could potentially offer a solution. WristQue, a thin, plastic wristband, works with a “smart” building’s integrated sensors to control temperature, humidity, and lighting. With a touch of a button, wearers indicate whether they are too warm or too cold. The device communicates with the sensors to keep temperatures optimum and power bills minimum.
How Does WristQue Work?
WristQue keeps track of where users go and when they arrive. As more people walk into a room, motion sensors in the room detect how many people come in and who they are. If no one indicates whether they want the room to be warmer or cooler, the system sets to a default temperature.
As people tell their WristQue what temperature they prefer, the building adjusts to satisfy the majority by adjusting windows, air conditioning, or heat. Smart buildings even have environmental sensors outside that can tell how much the temperature would change if a window was opened.
Once the system starts detecting patterns of people coming in and out of the room, it starts predicting when to change the temperature. Based on the data from the previous week, the system automatically adjusts the temperature to a comfortable level in the room before people actually start coming in. When people leave the room, opened windows are closed and if the air conditioning is turned on, it automatically turns off, which saved 24% of energy during one three-week test of the system.
Despite the complex software, the WristQue hardware keeps it simple. The prototype wristband has only three buttons: two that control temperature and a third allows the wearer to interface with nearby devices, such as a television or a computer. Because it’s still in its early stages, WristQue may eventually include other controls, such as a slider to control the lighting. It can’t include too many other controls, though, because WristQue is meant to be as unobtrusive and simple as possible.
Whether we will all wear WristQue devices in the future is an open question. Such a device, even without a personal tracking feature, is sure to raise privacy concerns. Despite the fact that cell-phones function in much the same way, employees may be hesitant to give their bosses another way to keep tabs on them. When the final design is rolled out every precaution should be made to make sure the devices do not track anymore information than they need, and to carefully convey this information to the end user.
Another obstacle: the WristQue system is easy enough for a human to wear, but equipping an older building with the sensors and automation needed to adjust windows and thermostat settings could be cost prohibitive. Newer buildings, however, can be built from the ground-up for such a “smart” system.
Whether or not WristQue ever sees production, it is clear “smart” thermostats will be a major part of our future energy saving strategy. The WristQue model is similar to the Nest home thermostat (Nvate, December 2011), the sleek thermostat that “learns” your temperature preferences and adjusts accordingly.
Both WristQue and Nest represent the kind of win-win technologies we need to reduce carbon emissions and energy use; technologies which reduce expenses, increase comfort, and yes, cut down on energy use and carbon emissions.