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Electric Acoustic: Exploring Energy Through Sonic & Vibration Displays



'Energy' is an abstract concept, invisible except through its effects, yet with vast geopolitical and environmental consequences-while driving many everyday practices. It is a curious 'material' to work with for designers, with experiential properties which are underexplored. In Electric Acoustic, we are exploring both sonification and vibration (cymatic displays) as media for experiencing energy, specifically electricity use. These materializations potentially enable deeper engagement with the invisible systems and infrastructures of everyday life. This short paper reports on our preliminary experiments and some of the issues and considerations arising during this initial exploration.
Figure 1: A dynamic reflection on the
wall produced by the cymatic display—
a mirrored dish of water vibrating with
changes in the building’s electricity use,
synchronized with ambient sonification
of the same data.
Electric Acoustic: Exploring Energy
Through Sonic & Vibration Displays
Dan Lockton
Imaginaries Lab, School of Design
and Sco Institute for Energy Innovation
Carnegie Mellon University
Pisburgh, PA, USA
Gray Crawford
Devika Singh
Shengzhi Wu
Imaginaries Lab, School of Design
Carnegie Mellon University
Pisburgh, PA, USA
‘Energy’ is an abstract concept, invisible except through its eects, yet with vast geopolitical and
environmental consequences—while driving many everyday practices. It is a curious ‘material’ to
work with for designers, with experiential properties which are underexplored. In Electric Acoustic, we
are exploring both sonification and vibration (cymatic displays) as media for experiencing energy,
specifically electricity use. These materializations potentially enable deeper engagement with the
invisible systems and infrastructures of everyday life. This short paper reports on our preliminary
experiments and some of the issues and considerations arising during this initial exploration.
energy; sonification; interface design; qualitative interfaces and displays; cymatics; vibration.
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CHI’19 Extended Abstracts, May 4–9, 2019, Glasgow, Scotland, UK
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ACM ISBN 978-1-4503-5971-9/19/05.
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This short paper describes Electric Acoustic (Figure 1), an experiment in designing a new kind of display
for energy use through using sound and vibration. We are exploring the possibilities of considering
energy’s properties as something for designers to work with, rather than simply a source of quantified
data to display.
Figure 2: The faded spines of books kept
on a windowsill are a form of summative
solar ‘energy’ display: the integration of
power over time produces an indexical vi-
sualization [15].
Energy vs power: dimensional analysis
Very oen we experience energy as a flow,
not as a stored quantity. We can’t feel how
much electricity is ‘in’ a baery by picking
it up (though it is true that we can feel the
weight of a can of gasoline). We could put the
baery on our tongue [
] to experience the
flow of energy (or, of course, actually connect
it to something like a light bulb). We feel the
flow of the wind, the ‘flow’ of sunlight. We
are, technically, feeling power (the rate of
change of energy) not energy.
A basic question for designers working with
energy thus might be: are we working with
energy or power? (continued on next sidebar)
‘Energy’ is an abstract concept, invisible except through its eects, yet with vast geopolitical and
environmental consequences. We encounter it through everyday practices, plugging in appliances,
charging devices that obsess us and structure our days, but at another level we fight wars and destroy
wildlife habitats to extract a bit more energy from the compounded dead bodies of other species and
plants buried in our earth. We learn at school about electricity, coal, oil, nuclear, wind, sunlight, and
how energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but we are constantly warned about not wasting
it. Sociotechnical imaginaries around energy can be highly politicized, from nuclear power [
] to
climate change [
] and the emerging solarpunk genre. At the level of everyday interactions, energy’s
invisibility and essential ‘mystery’ leads to a whole variety of mental imagery and metaphors [
and mental models of the systems of our homes and workplaces. While within the HCI community
there have been innovative design aempts to ‘materialize’ energy [
], or even to treat it as a ‘ghost’
in the home to detect [
], the majority of HCI work on energy has been about testing the eicacy
of displays to change people’s behavior around their energy use, usually through quantification of
individuals’ actions, although group [
] and organizational [
] projects are also emerging. There is
an opportunity for exploring this space further, through dierent kinds of interface and display for
energy which address it at a more qualitative [
] level, which we seek to explore in Electric Acoustic.
Designed interfaces and artifacts seeking to influence people’s energy use have become common
in HCI in recent years, framed as design for behavior change [
], oen via visual displays giving
users information and feedback (and sometimes feedforward) on use or costs of electricity or gas,
or more rarely, the impacts of their actions. However, numerical feedback may not take account of
the realities of household life [
], nor link people to wider comprehension of the energy system [
and substantially disconnects the user from the properties of energy itself. As Pierce and Paulos [
put it, ‘We are unaware of energy largely because it does not have (and is not designed to have) a
strong tangible presence in our lives’. Perhaps there is value in engaging people in understanding or
experiencing energy rather than trying to change behavior directly; while there have been some more
ambient colored light-based systems for displaying electricity use [
], use of thermal imaging [
], and
engagement with wider aspects of our relationships with energy [
] these are exceptional. There is
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less work exploring the ‘materialization’ of energy, making use of its properties while translating it
from invisible to experiential.
What would it mean to think about designers working with energy’s properties instead of only
something to monitor and quantify? Do the dierent forms in which we encounter energy make a
dierence? There are no ‘right’ answers here, but these are interesting questions to consider. Energy
enables things to perform actions. Is it a ‘catalyst’, or is that introducing a metaphor too far? Does
energy have its own ‘agency’? It can flow when not intended (with dangerous consequences, or
wasteful if we are not making productive use of what it does). Its use or flow can be a signal (lights le
on). Directly, we might imagine using electricity to burn marks on something, to electrolyze something,
to create paerns (e.g. Lichtenberg figures in wood), or to shock a user [
], making ‘electricity’ visible
or tangible. Our aim here has been to consider energy’s properties as engaging rather than aversive:
we are not trying to put people o using it, but to provide new ways of understanding or experiencing.
Energy vs power: dimensional analysis
How does that aect our choices? Perhaps
we are actually using a flow of energy as the
‘input’ but transforming it into a stored quan-
tity, or otherwise integrating it with respect
to time, to ‘display’ it?
For example, something showing accumu-
lated sunlight-hours, whether an electronic
display or a piece of dyed cloth or book spine
that fades in the sun (Figure 2), is in eect
integrating power over time to display a rep-
resentation of a total amount of energy re-
ceived or stored. And, vice versa, we might be
working with a quantity of energy itself but
turning it into a flow—power—to make it ex-
periential or interpretable, or how it changes
over time.
Figure 3: A Maker Faire visitor uses a Leap
Motion to ‘sketch’ the sound of energy be-
ing used in a video of kitchen activities
One underexplored property of energy is its ability to create sound. The ‘electrical hum’ or whine
of power lines, transformers, motors/pumps, fluorescent lighting, and so on, provides an interesting
starting point for more ‘direct’ sonification, but aside from literally amplifying this to make it more
audible, some kind of translation or mapping is needed [
]. The first author has previously explored
sonification of energy use in the Powerchord project [
], which used birdsong to provide real-time
feedback on the electricity use of dierent appliances, but there is still relatively lile work in this
field. For example, Cowden and Dosiek [
] have built auditory displays of power grid voltage. There is
no obvious ‘right’ set of dimensions for mapping energy to sound. Following the Powerchord work, in
which complexity of sound, ‘agitation’ or ‘arousedness’ was mapped to power draw, we were curious
to explore other kinds of mappings between power and sound. Our initial aempt, as a proof of
concept, involved the simple mapping of power (in W) to frequency of a sine wave, where a higher
measurement of power use produced a higher pitch, and vice versa. However, this mapping conflicted
with a commonsense intuition about relative pitches, that larger objects (and animals) have larger
resonant surfaces and cavities (and thus deeper pitches), and vice versa (see Maker Faire sidebar). A
low waage measurement from modest electricity use produced a low pitch that normally corresponds
to larger (and perhaps more powerful) objects and phenomena—intuitively misleading. As a reviewer
of this paper noted, there is perhaps a distinction between higher and larger amounts of power when
considering psychoacoustic mapping, which makes sense experientially, but perhaps not when solely
thinking in was.
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Electric Acoustic installation
We were given access to electricity use data for a whole building at Carnegie Mellon University, and
decided to use this as the basis for exploring ambient sonification. The dataset comprises measurements
of the apparent power draw (in volt-amperes (VA), but practically equivalent to W), measured every
30s, for three months at the end of 2017 (more than 175,000 data points). The data shows periodicities,
from the daily cycle of electricity usage from an ever-shiing multitude of parallel users, to distinct
plateaus from central air conditioning. The opportunity arose for a small installation in a heavily-
traicked hallway of the building, and we decided to try to represent the dynamics of parallel,
simultaneous electricity use by many users through both audio and visual media. In the event, a
three-part installation was built, with the dataset feeding a sonified ambient soundtrack (‘Electric
Ensemble’), a sound-driven vibration display, and a dynamic visualization of the building (Figure 4).
Sketching sound at the Maker Faire
We ran a booth at the Pisburgh Maker Faire
in October 2017 to get insights about how
people perceived mappings between power
and sound characteristics. Aer introductory
questions about energy in the home, a se-
ries of fun challenges invited visitors to ex-
periment with using Leap Motion sensors
to sonify their hand movements, creating
dierent sounds through hand position and
speed of movement. Once ‘trained’ using the
Leap Motion, participants watched videos
of household appliances being used (e.g. a
kitchen environment with someone cooking
a meal using a microwave oven, opening the
fridge, and using a hob), and asked them to
‘sketch’ (Figure 3) the sound (using a Leap
Motion controlling pitch and volume) that
they would expect to hear if they were listen-
ing to the energy being used. Do people main-
tain a kind of ‘background hum’ of energy
use that varies when devices are switched on
or o? Does the act of opening the fridge, or
switching on a dryer, dier in how its energy
use ‘sounds’ compared with the device being
on continuously?
In the event, the exercise was probably too
diicult for many participants just intro-
duced to using the Leap Motion, but one
paern that emerged was that a change in
(assumed) power draw (when an event oc-
curred) was what oen seemed notable to
people—it was not so much the absolute level
of power, but ‘deltas’ in it (up or down) which
provoked people to signal with a temporary
‘blip’ in the sound they were producing with
their hands. This suggested a potential route
to explore for the next stage of the project.
Sonification: Electric Ensemble. Following experiments with direct mapping of power values to the
pitch of an audible soundwave (see above), we explored mapping the power values to the frequency
of a lowpass filter filtering white noise. High electricity usage caused the lowpass to include all higher
frequencies, and low measurements cut out the high frequencies, leaving only the lower. This sounded
much like ocean surf, or wind speed rising and falling, where high frequencies added an intensity
and harshness, corresponding to increased electricity use. While the periodicity was very apparent at
higher speeds, at speeds closer to real-time it became very diicult to discern changes. The sound’s
evocation of the wind perhaps risked mixing metaphors in this context—although could be highly
appropriate in others, for example a wind turbine installation.
The measured electricity use in the building is an ever-changing summation of the electricity used
by thousands of electronic devices and infrastructure. In order to capture that dynamic, an idealized
sonification might produce one voice per electricity-draw-source—a charging phone, an automatic
light, an elevator, etc. When a device begins drawing from the grid, the voice turns on, and when
the device stops drawing electricity, the voice turns o. Higher electricity-draws such as building
air conditioning produce deeper notes whereas lower electricity-draws such as charging phones
produce higher notes, indicating their relative tininess. As the time resolution (30s) of the dataset is
too sparse to pick up on every change in electricity-draw state, this idealized sonification can only
be approximated. We built on an insight from the Maker Faire around changes in power draw and
developed a sonification system looking at the delta from one datapoint to the next. If a device turns
on or is plugged in, it creates a positive delta in the power draw, and when turned o or unplugged, it
creates a negative delta. For each positive delta, the system turns on a note of a frequency inversely
correlated with the delta’s magnitude. The note is turned o when a negative delta of comparable
magnitude arrives, presumably indicating that the device has turned o or disconnected.
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The sonification was processed in Max MSP, where 20 parallel sine wave oscillators tuned to four
octaves of Cmaj7add2 were individually triggered by their corresponding delta range. Heavy and
long-term electrical draws like air conditioning are audible as low pitched drones whereas tiny, short
term draws are audible as flickering, active, mid to high frequencies. While there are limitations in
this implementation, it produced a pleasant, dynamic, ambient sound which visibly mapped to the
cymatic display (next section), and could be operated at dierent speeds, allowing for real-time or
high-speed playback (for perception of dynamics and periodicities in energy data that are normally
too long and hidden to perceive).
Figure 4: Created in Processing, this visu-
alization used the building’s windows as
a graphic equalizer-style bar chart, show-
ing the contrast in hour-by-hour energy
use on the hoest and the coldest day ob-
served over three months, through blink-
ing windows as the display cycled through
each day. Columns depicted hours; rows
showed power ranging from 96–280 kVA.
Notes on notes
To be a pleasant (rather than aversive) ambi-
ent installation, the sonification needed to be
harmonious. However, once all notes are con-
strained down to a harmonious subset, the
fewer available notes reduce the granular-
ity of the mapping. This sonification system
uses a Cmaj7add2 chord (the notes C D E G
B). To avoid the muddiness present at lower
registers, the lowest note was chosen to be
C2 (65.41 Hz). To avoid the shrillness present
at registers above 1 kHz, the highest note
was chosen to be B5 (987.77 Hz). This leaves
four octaves of five notes each. The range of
deltas from the apparent power use dataset
were from 0 VA to about 80,000 VA. Dividing
this range into twenty equal sections leaves
each note being triggered by a range of about
4,000 VA, or 20,000 VA per octave.
Cymatic displays. While directly mapping power values to the pitch of an audible soundwave—with
an unmoored speaker siing on the desk and moving as it vibrated—we decided to explore further
how this vibration might be used as a kind of display in itself, building on ideas around levels of
‘directness’ and indexical visualization [
] but also the notion of energy itself as vibration, for
example as visualized through alternating current waveforms. First, we placed a few drops of water
on a plastic bag on top of the speaker and watched paerns emerge and vanish. While Chladni figures
have been explored in artistic and scientific applications, oen using powders to produce distinctive
resonance paerns, cymatic displays in general have not received much aention in HCI. McGowan
et al’s CymaSense [
] oers an interactive cymatic visualization (generated in Unity) as a way of
exploring music visually, and artist Ginger Leigh produces large interactive cymatics experiences, but
the field has potential for development in an interface design context. The basic process we undertook
in Electric Acoustic was to experiment (in Processing) mapping of power values in the dataset to
audio values centered around multiples of 200 Hz, but which were played through a speaker with
the cone removed and a mirrored dish of water substituted. Shining light onto the dish of water
at an angle (Figure 5) produced varying reflection paerns changing with the power value. Open
Sound Cont1rol (OSC) was then used to synchronize the sonification and the cymatic display, and the
complete installation featured reflection paerns on the wall behind the water dish, ever-changing as
the ambient sound cycled through the three-month dataset. In practice, the use of cymatics here was
not necessarily about producing distinctive paerns which someone could read as a particular power
value, but the potential for this does exist, with careful choice of frequencies.
The project described here is a tentative exploration using sound and vibration to produce a new kind
of display for energy use, inspired by properties of energy itself. There is clearly significant further
development potential, and we aim to explore in particular the ways in which understanding and
deeper engagement with invisible systems and infrastructures of everyday life (rather than hiding
them away) could be enabled through these kinds of materializations.
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The authors gratefully acknowledge assistance from the Carnegie Mellon College of Fine Arts Fund
for Research and Creativity, and Carnegie Mellon Facilities Management Services.
Figure 5: Developing the cymatic display.
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... Following previous experiments with sonification of energy-specifically, electricity use (Lockton et al, 2014), using sound samples such as birdsong increasing in complexity (which already sought to offer a more qualitative way of interpreting the data, building on metaphors identified by Bowden et al (2015))-the Electric Acoustic project (Lockton et al, 2019d) involved students exploring more broadly what it could mean to think about designers working with energy's qualities instead of only treating it as something to monitor and quantify. Properties and qualities considered included energy's ability to enable things to perform actions; directly-closer to Levels 1 or 2 of the Lockton et al (2017) classification-one might imagine using electricity to burn marks on something, to electrolyse something, to create patterns (e.g. ...
... Lichtenberg figures in wood), or to shock a user (Lee, 2018), making 'electricity' visible or tangible. While the specifics of the sonification are detailed in Lockton et al (2019d), in short, Gray Crawford, Shengzhi Wu, and Devika Singh created an ambient sound installation using three months' worth of electricity data for a building at Carnegie Mellon to trigger 20 parallel sine wave oscillators based on the magnitude of change in electricity use, so that heavy and longterm electrical draws (e.g. air conditioning) are audible as low pitched drones whereas tiny, short-term draws are audible as flickering, active, mid to high frequencies. ...
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This paper presents auditory displays of power grid voltage. Due to the constantly changing energy demands experienced by a power system, the voltage varies slightly about nominal, e.g., 120±2 V at 60±0.04 Hz. These variations are small enough that any audible effects, such as transformer hum, appear to have constant volume and pitch. Here, an audification technique is derived that amplifies the voltage variations and shifts the nominal frequency from 60 Hz to a common musical note. Sonification techniques are presented that map the voltage magnitude and frequency to MIDI velocity and pitch, and create a sampler trigger from frequency deviation. Several examples, including audio samples, are given under a variety of power system conditions. These results culminate in a multi-instrument track generated from the sonification of time-synchronized geographically widespread power grid measurements. In addition, an inexpensive Arduino-based device is detailed that allows for real-time sonification of wall outlet voltage.
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What does music look like? Representation of music has taken many forms over time, from musical notation [16], through to random algorithm-based visualisations based on the amplitude of an audio signal [19]. One aspect of music visualisation that has not been widely explored is that of Cymatics. Cymatics are physical impressions of music created in mediums such as water. Current Cymatic visualisations are restricted to 2D imaging, whilst 3D visualisations of music are generally based on arbitrary mapping of audio-visual attributes. This paper looks at the design of CymaSense, an interactive tool based on Cymatics.
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Much of how we construct meaning in the real world is qualitative rather than quantitative. We think and act in response to, and in dialogue with, qualities of phenomena, and relationships between them. Yet, quantification has become a default mode for information display, and for interfaces supporting decision-making and behaviour change. There are more opportunities within HCI for qualitative displays and interfaces, for information presentation, and an aid to help people explore their own thinking and relationships with ideas. Here we attempt one dimension of a tentative classification to support projects exploring opportunities for qualitative displays within design.
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Contemporary cultures of ubiquitous computing have given rise to new way of interacting with digital information through embodied, ambient, contextual, performative means. Yet the way we visualize information still largely follows the logic of flat media. Data visualizations typically rely on symbolic languages found in charts, maps, or conceptual diagrams. Information graphics also frequently use abstractions of concrete objects, such as illustrations and assembly diagrams. In Charles Sanders Peirce's semiology, those two modes of representation would be referred to as symbolic and iconic signs. Information representations that transcend the established language of the flat display are rare and not always successful. We argue that the challenges of communicating embodied and ambient information call for utilizing a third category of signs from Peirce's semiology: the index—a sign that is linked to its object through a causal connection. In this chapter, we elaborate on the role of indexical signs in visualization and argue that indexical visualization deserves a vital place in today's computational design, visual communication, and rhetoric. Here, we present a series of examples to discuss the properties of indexicality and theorize it as a new design strategy that can inform the design process of today's material-based computation and synthetic biological design, which rely on the material organization of the sign and the conditions that encapsulate its meaning within its physical embodiment.
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The Energy Babble is a kind of automated talk-radio that is obsessed with energy and the environment. We developed it with, and deployed it to, a number of existing "energy communities" in the UK. The system gathers content from a variety of online sources, including Twitter? feeds from the communities, from governmental departments, and from the National Grid, and chats about it continually using a number of synthesised voices interspersed with a variety of jingles and sound effects. Designed to playfully reflect and comment on the existing state of discourse and reports of practice in the UK, the Babble can be considered both as a product and as a research tool, in which role it worked to highlight issues, understandings, practices and difficulties in the communities with whom we worked.
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cote interne IRCAM: Serafin11a
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Householders play a role in energy conservation through the decisions they make about purchases and installations such as insulation, and through their habitual behavior. The present U.K. study investigated the effect of thermal imaging technology on energy conservation, by measuring the behavioral effect after householders viewed images of heat escaping from or cold air entering their homes. In Study 1 (n = 43), householders who received a thermal image reduced their energy use at a 1-year follow-up, whereas householders who received a carbon footprint audit and a non-intervention control demonstrated no change. In Study 2 (n = 87), householders were nearly 5 times more likely to install draught proofing measures after seeing a thermal image. The effect was especially pronounced for actions that addressed an issue visible in the images. Findings indicate that using thermal imaging to make heat loss visible can promote energy conservation.
Decreasing our demand for energy is an important component of the global effort to reduce carbon emissions. Energy consumption, both at home and in the workplace, is greatly influenced by human behaviour. Our research investigates how technological interventions could support behaviour-based energy reduction. This paper reports a Living Lab study on the co-design of a device for improving energy efficiency via behaviour change in a large public-sector organisation. We emphasise the importance of taking a broad view of organisational behaviour, highlighting the complex and indirect ways that it influences energy use. Methods and findings are reported from a series of insight and innovation workshops that we held with staff, and which led to the development of a prototype device - LILEE: The Little Interface for Lab Equipment Efficiency. We describe LILEE and discuss how it embodies wider lessons for the design of effective energy-related behaviour change interventions.
A new generation of climate fiction called Cli-fi has emerged in the last decade, marking the strong consensus that has emerged over climate change. Science fiction’s concept of cognitive estrangement that combines a rational imperative to understand while focusing on something different from our everyday world provides one linkage between climate fiction and science fiction. Five novels representing this genre that has substantial connections with science fiction are analyzed, focusing on themes common across these books: their framing of the climate change problem, their representations of science and scientists, their portrayals of economic and environmental challenges, and their scenarios for addressing the climate challenge. The analysis is framed through Taylor’s ideas of the social imaginary and the sociology of expectations, which proposes that expectations are promissory, deterministic, and performative. The novels illustrate in varying ways the problems attending the science-society relationship, the economic imperatives that have driven the characters’ choices, and the contradictory impulses that define our connections with nature. Such representations provide a picture of the challenges that need to be understood, but scenarios that offer possibilities for change are not as fully developed. This suggests that these books may represent a given moment in the longer trajectory of climate fiction while offering the initial building blocks to reconsider our ways of living so that new expectations and imaginaries can be debated and reconceived.