PLAN 84: Article
Local Warming

Interactive Sculpture Demonstrates New Heating Technology

Local Warming, an installation outside MIT’s Lobby 7 this spring, demonstrates a new approach to heating commercial buildings, using smart sensors to track individuals’ presence and beaming heat directly to them as they move about. The goal of the installation is to gather data on how people actually interact with the system in order to gain insight into its practical usefulness.

The heating of commercial buildings, including electricity that is ultimately converted to heat, accounts for 20% of the nation’s energy consumption, creating more than a gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions per year, largely from natural gas combustion. Because the air in buildings is generally warmed by a central heating system and distributed by a HVAC system, a great deal of that heat is wasted, leaking out through windows, walls and ceilings.

Based on the notion that those losses could be reduced substantially if occupants were heated directly, the Local Warming installation serves as a prototype for a dynamic human tracking system that will radiate infrared heat directly to individuals with little or no transfer of heat to surrounding air, walls or floors. In outdoor environments, the benefits would be even more pronounced.

The installation consists of a single unit in the center of a three-mirror array, the adjacent mirrors tracking the same motion as the central heating device to draw attention to the installation’s movement. In a full-blown installation, all the tracking units would be heating elements.

The project leader for Local Warming was Leigh Christie, a candidate for the SM in Art, Culture and Technology and co-founder of the eatART Laboratory, a Vancouver foundation that fosters research focused on large-scale, technically sophisticated art aimed at educating people about the role of energy in our lives.

Christie worked with SMArchS candidate Cagri Zaman and Visiting Researcher Matthias Danzmayr. Principal Investigator on the project was Carlo Ratti, Director of SA+P’s Senseable City Lab, which funded the project as a continuation of its research into the use of Wi-Fi connections and cellular networks to gauge the numbers of occupants in a room or building.