As a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts - Products of Design MFA inaugural 2014 class, my thesis entitled “Hacking the Orchestra of Life: A Movement for Capturing Ambient Energy,” explores the space of energy generation through human-made sources. While jogging on a treadmill at the gym one day, I looked at the landscape of people bobbing up and down on machines. I thought, “We were all exerting a huge amount of energy, but consuming a vast amount of energy as well.” This observation led me to the question, “how can we take advantage of all of this activity?”
The global population is increasing dramatically. By 2050, the world’s population will increase from 7.1 billion to 9.6 billion according to the United Nations. And fifty percent more energy must be produced to meet this demand, as every person on earth consumes energy. However, everything that lives also moves. I used this ideal to frame my body of work to realize meaningful change through reframing people’s perception of energy use and production.
More of my thinking and research may be found on my thesis blog here.
How can we harvest energy through the use of tools?
How can we harvest energy through the vessels of transportation?
How can we harvest energy through human movement?
How can we harvest energy through living things?
I began by investigating the small, but growing landscape of existing energy harvesting products, both real and speculative. As I began ideating, four distinct areas began to emerge: tools, transportation, human movement and animal movement. I investigated activities requiring micro
movements, such as chewing gum, to macro movements, like the massive power of a jet engine. I even imagined a speculative New York City catch and release rat program, in which rats would be embedded with kinetic-powered Wi-Fi transmitters, giving internet access to all subway riders.
What might harvesting objects look like?
This speculative design takes a manual labor task such as shoveling and creates a secondary benefit of light by harvesting energy from the user’s movement during the day.
A sense of communal collaboration is foregrounded in this conceptual energy-harvesting scenario.
I took to observing human behaviors and the ways in which people move. Through carrying these speculative energy stones in pockets, backpacks or purses, energy is captured and store to a battery. At the end of
the day, the user empties their pockets to inductively charge their electronic devices. These stones could act as an alternative economy, where people exchange their energy for goods and services.
These speculative energy harvesting stickers mimic parasites. When attached to moving objects, people or animals, the stickers convert kinetic activity into energy. The stickers can be sealed and sent in envelopes or packages, essentially hacking the postal
service in the name of energy creation. The sender can also mail battery-depleted stickers across the globe, and by the time they arrive, the recipient will get a fully charged usable battery.
These conceptual objects demonstrate the process of energy harvesting though playful interactions. Through twirling, bouncing, rolling and spinning, power is created. The wooden case not only acts as a storage box, but as an energy converter as well.
Once the micro internal battery in each object has reached storage capacity, they are to be placed back into the case. Devices and appliances may be plugged into the back of the case depending on mobile energy requirements.
A 30 second animated GIF was created to pitch my thesis. The animation was shown to complete strangers on an iPad in an elevator. The process initiated conversation about energy use and whether the general public really knew what ambient energy harvesting was. I found that the majority of people I
encountered didn't know what “ambient," “energy" or “harvesting” meant. They were, however, intrigued with the idea of harnessing movement to charge their iPhone. This exercise helped me define a thesis lexicon containing terms that were appropriate as well as terms to avoid.
This conceptual device is similar to a wearable activity tracker, but instead of measuring steps taken or calories burned, it measures energy harvested. As the user goes about his or her daily activities, the wearable device harvests energy. The energy is then measured with familiar objects that require energy, such as a light bulb, cell phone and laptop. These indications of how much each object requires to charge or power are easier to understand than arbitrary wattage.
This incentive system creates an enthusiasm for remaining active throughout the day. It also creates a direct correlation between the activities and energy requirements for their devices. This connection creates an understanding and awareness of the large amount of energy required for powering the devices of our lives. The energy pods may be stacked on one another to create a more powerful energy cell to charge larger devices as well.
“Hacked Couture” is a concept video that describes a day in New York City in the year 2018. Energy harvesters are sewn directly into clothing to power household objects, such as lights.
Over the course of my research, I reached out to a number of professors in the fields of psychology and human behavior in order to gain an understanding of the differences between habit, routine and ritual. As a substantial amount of movement is needed throughout the day in order for a person to generate enough energy to power a battery, I realized that successful energy harvesting is contingent on establishing links between repetitive movement and habits, routines and rituals. To corroborate my research into habits, routines and rituals, I decided to design something that I knew my audience would hate. Some habitual activities are sequential. For example, one wakes up, takes a shower, eats breakfast and then brushes his or her teeth.
Very rarely do people brush their teeth before they eat breakfast. Jumping off this insight, I created a suite of speculative designs titled “Codependent Appliances.” One design is a coffee maker that also functions as a coffee bean grinder. Pairing the two separate yet dependent appliances is logical, however, this grinder is powered by a battery that can only be charged by energy harvested from the coffee maker. As a result, the coffee maker has to be used before the grinder can be, but the coffee maker depends on the grinder to grind the beans. Once they become aware of this infuriating dynamic, users will likely respond with confusion and anger. Designing for extreme user scenarios helped to frame what designs were appropriate for energy harvesting.
In order to envision a future in which ambient energy harvesting could sustainably exist, I turned to reading, writing, storytelling and object-making to generate ideas. I diagrammed three speculative worlds set in the early 2050s, using them as
settings for thought experiments that would probe the possible benefits and consequences of harvesting ambient energy. Each world elaborated on an existing trend that may have the potential to affect citizens on a global scale by the year 2050.
Story telling is a necessary component of speculative thinking. These three worlds were used to construct a short narrative about energy harvesting. Referencing the format of the hero’s journey, the story crafted a society, norms and behaviors around a speculative object. “The Suit” is set in 2054, in a world in which citizens are mandated to generate a certain amount of energy through wearing an energy-harvesting suit. The story takes place over a day in the life of the
protagonist, Anders, as he goes to work and interacts with his suit. In the end, he discovers a way to escape from the suit. I used “The Suit” as inspiration for creating a physical object. The object, which is meant to demonstrate speculative principles, consists of an articulating structure that locks onto a subject’s arm. In the fully realized version of the project, energy will be harvested and stored throughout the day as the wearer moves and flexes their arm.
As I began doing more in-depth research around physics, electricity and batteries, I referenced the technical paper, “Movers and Shakers: Kinetic Energy Harvesting for the Internet of Things.” The paper was coauthored by his thesis advisor, John Kymissis, an electrical engineering professor at Columbia University, which consisted of placing accelerometers the shirt
pockets of 40 participants while running for 20 seconds. The potential energy through the participants’ movement resulted in a median reading of about 813 microwatts or about 0.0000407 Joule. The study illustrated that it would take about 16.5 minutes of running to power an LED for 10 seconds.
Using this as a benchmark, I decided to harvest energy through an electromagnetic method of attaching components of a shake flashlight to running shoes. I was able to produce about 0.05 Joule through my movement, which is better, but the amounts are still pretty dismal.
To put that in context, I calculated I'd have to walk almost 200 miles to charge my iPhone and a lengthy 3,100 miles to fully charge my laptop battery.
Fully embracing the fact that the energy volumes possible from human movement are dismal with current technology, I took inspiration from my interview with Cameron Tonkinwise, Director of Design Studies at Carnegie Mellon.
Cameron stated, “Little bits add up to a lot.” Looking at the opportunity on a macro global scale with billions of people harvesting, I took this idea and designed a conceptual product platform and system entitled “Harvest.”
Harvest transforms a user’s daily movement into quantifiable energy. Using an electromagnetic process, energy is stored to a micro rechargeable lithium-ion battery called a “pod” that is embedded in footwear, apparel and bicycles. The energy is stored to the Harvest pod battery and the user can check his or her metrics by using the Harvest app. Harvest supplies the energy harvesting technology and partners with footwear, apparel and bicycle companies such as Nike, Lululemon and Trek. The Harvest user can upload their energy by visiting “Harvest Hotspots,” such as Nike and Lululemon stores as well as Whole Foods and Starbucks.
The Hotspots utilize the existing infrastructure of the Square payment kiosk system and the harvested energy is transferred and stored to a green energy bank. Once enough energy is accumulated, a Renewable Energy Certificate is created. The certificate is then sold on the energy market and the proceeds are donated to a set of philanthropic and charity organizations, such as The American Red Cross and 1% for the Planet.
A campaign featuring Nike-sponsored athletes will reframe the perception of energy production and use, proposing the question “What would you do with the energy of LeBron James?”
Put it on the shelf as a collectible, power your iPhone, or donate it to a school to keep their lights on? Harvest has the opportunity for global adoption, capturing energy throughout the world
I found a number of other promising sources for energy harvesting, which he developed into experimental thought provocations. These working prototypes were branded as “Harvest Lab,” which encompassed the more experimental “hacking” side of Harvest.
I explored moving things within the urban environment, such as taxis, and created a new method to capture energy through the rotation of the wheel. As this idea of energy pirating became very intriguing, I built a working prototype and titled it “Taxi Hack.”
I was able to receive a small charge to my cell phone battery, by attaching the prototype to a car wheel and traveling about six blocks.
Another experiment conducted under the auspices of Harvest Lab is “Project Zip Light.” Through research and prototyping, I found that a DC motor is one of the most efficient methods for harvesting energy. By directly connecting an LED to a DC motor and running the device down a zip line to generate energy, it circumvented the need for a capacitor or a battery to power the light. Project Zip Light was inspired by Gravity Light designed by London based company Deciwatt. Gravity Light generates energy to power an LED though taking advantage of potential energy and gravity.
The user raises a heavy bag of sand. The lowering of the bag transforms mechanical energy into electrical energy to illuminate an LED. Project Zip Light replaces the need for a lowering weight with the horizontal orientation of a zip line. I designed and built a rig consisting of cords and pulleys to deploy the lights that was then tested in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. By framing the experiment as a designed system that utilizes weight and gravity to transfer mechanical energy into electrical energy, it prompted people to think about new and unique methods of energy generation.
Taking the concept of Harvest and applying it to other facets of movement, anything that moves can be a source for energy. It’s only a matter of time for science to catch up to design. I plan to continue exploring, thinking, making and designing within the field of energy harvesting.
There is an immediate need for new green energy. It is possible to realize meaningful change through reframing our perception of energy use and production.
Please visit my thesis blog to view more process work: