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Wei Gao

How can I help? – Wei Gao

by Theresa Pepin

Ah, incentives. The classic coupon has been around a long time to get us to buy things, but how can we get people to do what we need them to do on behalf of their environment?

Users’ smart phones can add to the effectiveness of more expensive built-in sensors in a smart building that—pardon our pun—may be “out of touch” for many aspects of living. But getting smart phone users to help is the trick.

Wei Gao proposes to seamlessly integrate users and their smart phones’ sensing capabilities with built-in sensors to greatly improve the accuracy and efficiency of monitoring in smart buildings. The built-in sensors track readings in temperature, humidity, light, and sound and configure the central control units accordingly. For their part, smart phones are nowadays programmable and equipped with a rich set of on-board sensors such as microphones, ambient light detectors, 3-D accelerometers, gyroscopes, among many others. So smartphone-sensing capabilities could complement built-in sensors and further expand the monitoring scope of smart-building applications.

Previous attempts to leverage the availability of smart phones to reduce indoor energy use have relied on contractual direct payments to compensate users. Gao and his team—including graduate student Wesley Tipton and undergraduate Nina Mei-Yee Wong—take a different approach that promises to be much more successful. It addresses the major challenge of how to better motivate users to contribute to the collective effort.

The JDRD team’s incentive framework makes it possible for users to participate either implicitly or explicitly in a flexible, individualized arrangement that minimizes costs and maximizes benefits. Minimizing or even eliminating costs can be anything from calling upon the smart phone user’s sensors only when battery power is high to completely implicit operations requiring little or no conscious involvement of the user. Maximizing benefits comes, above all, from the user’s option to actively express their opinions and achieve individual comfort, if and when they wish to do so. (To encourage that active participation, picture logos are displayed in a smart building with the slogan “Your opinion matters!”)

gao_smart-phoneA prototype of the communication and coordination mechanisms required is on track for development, together with a conditioned building system and test bed of users.

The corresponding LDRD project, led by Pooran C. Joshi at ORNL, has recently demonstrated its ability to fabricate 3-D printable sensors by a process that will enormously reduce the per unit cost of built-in sensors. Together the two projects will arrive at a fully integrated and much lower cost system that will make possible truly practical and effective smart building technology. Many business corporations and funding agencies are interested in the interaction of communication, computation and control systems for buildings and for environmental and other physical technologies; the collaboration expects to prepare proposals in the near future, targeting the National Science Foundation, Cyber-Physical Systems and the US Department of Energy’s Building Technologies programs, among others.


JDRD project:
User-centric sensing platform for smart buildings
Wei Gao, UT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department

LDRD project:
Low-cost, multi-sensor wireless platform for smart buildings
Pooran Joshi, ORNL Materials Science and Technology Division