Gavin Platt is Creative Director and co-founder of Lucid Design Group, and a good friend. We met as undergraduates in a swing dancing extracurricular class, he at Oberlin College and I at the Conservatory. For the record, Gavin is, and always will be a better lindy hopper, but I would like to point out that being the same height as or taller than your partner is a completely unfair advantage. We met a few months ago in San Francisco while I was on a trip, where he was (and still is) in the midst of some exciting developments with Lucid’s products, software and hardware that allow building occupants to see and understand real-time data of their resource use. After the launch of their newest application last week, I got some time on Gavin’s schedule for a phone conference about this capability, as well as the larger picture and challenges that lie ahead.
Lucid traces its origins back to Oberlin College, where a series of work-study projects and senior theses around the sensor and metering infrastructure of buildings created the initial body of research that provides the foundation for Lucid’s products, under the direction of Dr. John Peterson, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Biology and Director of Oberlin College’s Environmental Studies Program. John and Oberlin students Michael Murray and Vladi Shunturov, with an initial investment from family and friends, established Lucid first as an LLC, later forming a corporation. Several awards for their research and earlier versions of the applications provided the name recognition and legitimacy to generate further rounds of funding.
Lucid’s flagship product, the Building Dashboard, is based on the straightforward notion that our cars have instrument panels that provide real-time data about the various systems of the vehicle and our current speed, so our buildings ought to have the same. Though anyone with a particularly arduous auto commute may beg to differ, we spend the vast majority of our time inside buildings, yet rarely, if ever, have comparable data about the power, gas, water and other resources we consume through them. Building Dashboard monitors building systems and reports available data through kiosks or a web browser, putting our behavior and resultant effect on resource consumption front and center, in a streamlined, non-technical user interface. The goal of reporting data in this manner is to endow it with the capacity to influence the behavior of building occupants through a variety of incentives, such as cost savings or competition. The standalone version of Building Dashboard has always enabled data sharing among different buildings within one network (such as a college campus), but the recently launched Building Dashboard Network makes this practice web-capable, meaning that data can be shared with anyone, anywhere in the world. Gavin’s contribution to all of these products is management of the look and feel of the end-user interfaces. Though he is quick to share credit for Lucid’s success and points out that the back-end and data crunching elements of Building Dashboard are very complex and powerful tools in and of themselves, the intended audience is the casual user, who may have little to no technical knowledge about building systems. Having a visual interface that is simple, informative and compels action is key to Lucid’s mission.
Though the easily identifiable and tangible elements of Lucid’s products revolve around sensors, networking and data analysis, the behavioral research and implementation of findings in the user-interface sets their work apart. Gavin talks about intervals, or data resolution, which just means the frequency with which the data is or can be updated, as compared to the frequency needed to affect behavior in the desired direction and magnitude. In an ideal world, the team would love to see real-time monitoring capability on everything, but in lieu of that they spend a significant amount of energy figuring out how much resolution is good enough. Some specialized meters can report every five to fifteen minutes. PG&E’s SmartMeter reports every hour. Some meters are only capable of providing a batch of data points every 24 hours, so it is lagging the behavior and eliminates the opportunity for immediate action to address a problem. Interacting with these technical limitations is the realization that individuals react differently to the same data, or may require different types of data to be spurred to the same action. For some, receiving a billing statement once per month that summarizes all use may be enough to affect choices about consumption. In other situations, users may need rich and real-time data to identify usage trends and isolate individual building systems, such as lighting or ventilation.
Interaction with the Building Dashboard is another area of importance. New versions go first though internal testing, followed by a round of beta testing, and then enable users to provide feedback once the application has been deployed. One very useful change resulted from end-user comments that they were using Building Dashboard to baseline (determine resources used when no occupants are in the building) and needed a way to graphically indicate this for comparison with normal usage. The subsequent version featured a quick way for building managers to manually set a baseline point and display on resource usage graphs.
Lucid recognizes that there are different types of users who may benefit from resource data. They identify users who pay directly for their utility use, who may respond to data presented in terms of cost savings. Other users pay a fixed fee or have utilities included, in which case other aspects like environmental performance, a social aspect of belonging to a community, or (when enabled) competitive behavior with peers, may be better suited to the task. Lucid works on developing incentives in particular for this second group and users who pay none of the cost of their usage, such as office employees or dorm students. Ultimately, the cost of resources is paid by the company or university, and is reflected indirectly in the employee wage or room and boarding fees, but like fixed fee customers, these users have no ability to affect the cost to themselves in real-time. In these cases, Lucid sees Building Dashboard as a way to showcase the performance of the building and its community, highlighting any unique features (such as renewable energy generation) and exceptional performance (like dramatic reductions in power use). This generates buzz around the topic of resource conservation, provides an outlet for facilities managers, and enables community comparison and competition. Comparing resource usage profiles among buildings and engaging in competition got a significant upgrade with the launch of Building Dashboard Network, and in a few cases is even providing a platform for buildings to compete for tenants on the basis of environmental features.
Though the forward-motion and energy at Lucid is palpable, the road ahead is not without significant hurdles. One is the cost and degree of difficulty in establishing a building’s sensor network. A new building design can incorporate all of the needed sensors, submetering and networking for a fully implemented Building Dashboard. Existing buildings, however, fall into two camps. In some newer structures, many systems are already controlled remotely by computer, so obtaining performance data about those systems can be as simple as interfacing with the existing controls. Lucid works closely with major systems providers to ensure compatibility. Some systems may not be automated or submetered, thus will require installation of additional sensors to include those. The steepest hill to climb is the state of many older buildings, with absolutely no centralized control, in which sensors, meters and networks may need to be installed for each and everything the building manager wishes to measure. This can push implementation out to a timescale of many months and at considerable cost. Lucid is also piloting use of Building Dashboard in homes, but the maturation of that market is much father out and uncertain when compared to commercial and institutional customers. For homes, Building Dashboard would be one component of a successful smart grid, but presupposes district-wide rollout of the information network. Some homeowners are reluctant to adopt this infrastructural change, due to concerns about data privacy, not fully grasping the concepts of the technology, and lack of communication from utilities companies that causes user distrust of pricing tiers and demand response. This was evidenced in the recent backlash against PG&E’s SmartMeter installations. Gavin proposes that pairing the new meters with a dashboard earlier in the program’s deployment might have gone a long way to helping users understand how the new technology works and what actions they can take to leverage it to their benefit.
Serious challenges call for serious work, and despite their Bay Area location and easy-going exteriors, the Lucid team wants not for heads-down determination, hard work and focus. In the initial years of the company, when they were repeatedly told there was no foreseeable market for this product, unflinching persistence was one of the few things that carried them through to current success. On occasion, however, a little tension release does make interesting cameo appearances. Gavin recently took great gusto in dangling his new “iPad” (photo above, look closely) in front of envious coworkers. A couple of years ago, on April 1 the Building Dashboard was reconfigured to show data from the International Space Station, with very detailed information about the solar panels, the differences between US, Russian and Japanese solar arrays, and water loss. Back on Earth, for buildings already outfitted or soon to feature Building Dashboard and engage in data sharing and competition, the race is on. In this race, everyone can win if we try hard enough.
Building Dashboard and Building Dashboard Network are trademarks of Lucid Design Group. All photos and screen captures were provided by Gavin Platt and Lucid.