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Using games to improve energy efficiency

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A central issue in the UK election campaigning has been around the so called ‘cost of living crisis’.  Whilst the Conservatives have touted the growing economy as an example of their capabilities, Labour have suggested the recovery has been a hollow one, with many struggling to get by.

A major part of this argument revolves around property, both in terms of the incredibly high house prices, but also the cost of heating those homes.

Suffice to say, this blog isn’t about politics, but a recent project is utilizing mobile gamification to try and improve matters and make living a little more cost effective.

The project, known as EnerGAware, is funded from the European Horizon 2020 program and connects mobile devices with smart meters to try and reduce energy usage in homes.

Gamifying energy conservation

Over the next 5 years, smart meters are being installed in homes throughout the UK.  The devices will not only provide households with a lot of data on their energy usage, but also the project team.

They’ll use this data as the basis for a virtual home within the game itself.  The aim is to allow players to test out new behaviors in the game before then putting the best ones into practice in their real home.

The aim is to have players competing against each other, with the resulting knowledge sharing hopefully fostering the spread of the best ideas, whilst also promoting social inclusion.

“At the present time, people only tend to worry about their energy consumption when the bills come through but there is very little knowledge about the fact that changes in behaviour can influence it. What we are trying to do is make energy less of a chore, and more something they can directly impact on in an interesting and fun way. The increased use of apps and smart phones provides us with that opportunity, and we hope this project can have a genuine and lasting effect on issues such as fuel poverty, IT literacy and social exclusion,” the project team say.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Of course, this isn’t the first time that a game based approach has been taken to reducing energy usage.  One such project has been tried by OPower.

The company works with utility companies to provide households with data on how much energy they are consuming, how they match up with neighbors, and if they are close to any new milestones.

Compellingly, people are consuming on average 2% less energy, which in 2012 led to over 1 Terawatt of energy savings in the world. This equates to $120,000,000 in utility bill savings, and decreased pollution equivalent of keeping 100,000 cars off the road.

A similar project was created by Simple Energy, who teamed up with San Diego Gas & Electric to turn energy saving into a competition.

The app allows consumers to track their energy usage in real time, whilst comparing their consumption both with themselves, and their neighbors.

The process itself is very simple. Simple Energy gets consumer usage data from electric utilities and funnels that through its servers into the mobile and desktop programs it designs. All you need is a computer or smartphone: Once you sign up, your online account or mobile phone app can tell you how much energy you’ve used in the last hour, day, month, etc.

The social element comes into play if your friends are also signed up, because you can compare your own performance against theirs. Rewards come in the form of badges rather than tangible rewards, but for many that seems incentive enough.

Such social incentives were uncovered by The Reducing Energy Consumption through Community Knowledge Networks (RECCKN) team that studied the way social engagement can reduce energy consumption.

They found that consumers are generally skeptical of the energy companies, and as such are not likely to accept advice on energy saving that comes from them, instead preferring to take advice from friends, families and local organizations in the third sector.

The most effective method of communicating that advice was also interesting, with face to face discussions proving most effective, as consumers were generally overwhelmed by the barrage of offers and information that was sent to them via written communication.

What’s more, face to face conversations allowed interaction and for questions to be asked. This level of engagement proved crucial, as despite the strong instincts most people had for reducing energy consumption, few had the confidence to follow those instincts, instead often deferring to so called experts.

The researchers said that,‘The key to releasing this potential lies in making energy use ‘discussable’ at convivial meetings where citizens can exchange tips and knowledge. As well as producing good energy outcomes, we found that these meetings increase confidence and the motivation to save energy, empower citizens, and increase community capacity.”

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