Then he saw an Ambient Orb. It's a groovy little ball that changes color in sync with incoming data — growing more purple, for example, as your email inbox fills up or as the chance of rain increases. Martinez realized he could use Orbs to signal changes in electrical rates, programming them to glow green when the grid was underused — and, thus, electricity cheaper — and red during peak hours when customers were paying more for power. He bought 120 of them, handed them out to customers, and sat back to see what would happen.Making the invisible visible. Very cool. I want me one of them there balls.
Within weeks, Orb users reduced their peak-period energy use by 40 percent. Why? Because, Martinez explains, the glowing sphere was less annoying and more persistent than a text alert. "It's nonintrusive," he says. "It has a relatively benign effect. But when you suddenly see your ball flashing red, you notice."
That's the power of "ambient information," which tries to combat data overload by moving information off computer screens and into the world around us. This is the psychological paradox of ambient information: We're more likely to act on a subtle but continuously present message than an intermittent one we're forced to stare at.
So here's the radical idea: Maybe the real killer app for ambient information isn't alleviating data overload or tracking investments. Maybe it's taming global warming. To improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions, we first need to make omnipresent the hidden facts about our usage — paint them on the world around us.