SWELTERING in the office while your colleague shivers under layers of extra clothing? Just register your discomfort by tapping a button on your wrist and let the room do the rest.
That's one of the ideas behind WristQue, a project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that aims to create a low-power wristband device that works with sensors embedded in buildings to monitor how you feel and continually adjust the lighting and temperature to keep you happy.
WristQue is the key to controlling "the immersive world of interactive media that will one day surround us", says Joe Paradiso, director of the Responsive Environments Group at MIT's Media Lab, who is working with colleagues to design it.
Each 3D-printed, plastic WristQue band will contain a microprocessor and will be packed with environmental sensors to detect changes in temperature, humidity and light. It will be fitted with a chip that uses ultra-wideband radio signals to pinpoint the user's location and will be able to communicate wirelessly with sensors fitted in smart buildings.
WristQue is designed to be simple and unobtrusive, says Paradiso. It will only have three buttons - two of which will allow users to indicate they are either too warm or too cold. The third will activate gestural controls, so users can interact with any devices nearby, such as televisions or computers. "People can gesture with Kinect but it doesn't know who you are - we're thinking of a device that can do that, but without distracting you like a PDA," says Paradiso.
So far, the team has developed and tested the climate control parts of the device in the Media Lab building. This is fitted with motion sensors, which detect whether the room is occupied. If someone is present, but hasn't specified whether they would like the temperature to change, the system sets the temperature to a default level. When users do press the hot or cold buttons, the temperature is changed to suit the majority of people in the room. This can be achieved by opening and closing windows, or activating the air conditioning. Environmental sensors outside the building let the system predict the likely temperature change inside a room if the windows were to be opened.
Using the room's motion sensor data from the previous week, the system's software also predicts when the room will next be occupied, and by whom. This is used to bring the room up to a pleasant temperature before people arrive. A three-week trial saw a 24 per cent reduction in energy usage because less air-conditioning was needed to keep all occupants comfortable.
WristQue is still at an early stage and its design is likely to change as the team continues testing. The team plans for the finished system to include location information and extra controls, such as a slider to control lighting levels and sensors to allow users to control nearby electronic devices. Paradiso's team has also developed a virtual building that lets users explore sensor read-outs around them (see "Bubbles and flames").
"It will know who you are, where you are, and will have pointing sensors to let you interact with displays," says Paradiso.
This type of unobtrusive body-worn device will be "instrumental" in interacting with the next generation of smart homes, says Sumi Helal of the University of Florida in Gainesville, who works in smart homes and pervasive computing. "Wristbands will have a major role to play in the future," he says.
Bubbles and flames
THE sheer amount of data created in smart buildings packed with sensors can be a challenge to wade through.
To help visualise it all, Joe Paradiso and his team at MIT's Media Lab (see main story) have developed Doppellab, which uses a video-game graphics engine to present sensor data - such as that produced by the team's WristQue device - in a 3D model of a building. Users can explore this virtually, and flickering flames of different colours represent room temperatures, while bubble shapes show changes in sound levels. Users' tweets can be read and even conversations are streamed - scrambled and anonymised - as people pass embedded microphones, just to show what the tech can do.