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A Bug Story

It began, as so many things begin these days, with an email message.

The message came from Bruce Sterling, famed science fiction author and self-proclaimed "Pope-Emperor of the Viridian Movement"––a design movement to make the products and graphics we are surrounded by both greener and cooler. "Viridian" literally means a "cool shade of green." Sterling had called the Viridian Movement into being from the comfort of his Austin, Texas, computer den, by means of that already-antiquated but still-subversive twentieth-century technology, the email listserv.

Sterling took a bright idea by listserv member Stefan Jones, and wrote some ad copy for a product that did not yet exist:

One of the most offensive artifacts of the twentieth century is the standard household energy meter. This ugly gizmo clings like a barnacle to the outside of your home, readable only by functionaries. Clumsily painted in battleship gray, this network spy device features creepy, illegible little clock-dials, under an ungainly glass dome. Look a bit closer, and this user-hostile interface deliberately insults you, with a hateful anti-theft warning, and a foul little lockbox.

This crass device is designed to leave you in stellar ignorance of your own energy usage. It publicly brands you as a helpless peon, a technically illiterate source of cash for remote, uncaring utility lords.

But today, thanks to the Viridian Electrical Meter, the tables are turned. The Viridian Meter is not some utility spy device, but a user-owned art object!

Circulated around the world by viral email forwarding, this Viridian vision of a household electricity meter that is actually beautiful, engaging, and easy to understand was well received. You could say that people were, uh, electrified by the idea of utility customers all over world cutting back on power (and global warming) because of their new meter's sensual and aesthetic reward signals.

"Let's make this idea real," said Michael Lerner of the Jennifer Altman Foundation. "Okay," said I, foolishly volunteering to coordinate a global design competition. The Sustainability Institute in Vermont, where I volunteer (from on the road) as the "director of arts & culture," sponsored the yearlong venture.

With $8,000 in prize money, the "First International Viridian Design Competition" attracted around thirty-five serious applicants to the first round, from as far away as Turkey and Pakistan. Participants ranged from university students to a surprising number of professional design firms. Some had already designed meters, and were happy to have a contest to enter.

First they submitted one-page descriptions of their design ideas, plus pictures. An esteemed panel of judges––including sustainability, energy, and design luminaries such as Amory Lovins, John Todd, Nancy Jack Todd, and Donella Meadows––made the first cut. Ten finalists were invited to submit prototypes (either physical or virtual). Donella Meadows carted these prototypes to the annual meeting of an international sustainability network called the Balaton Group (named for Hungary's largest lake, where the group meets).

Forty-plus Balaton participants from more than a dozen nations reviewed an amazing assortment of plastic models, posters, videotapes, and CD-ROM computer animations. Every member voted by deciding how much of the $8,000 each finalist deserved.

This little device, designed by a Turkish team headed by Inci Mutlu, was purely virtual––computer animation, backed up by detailed engineering diagrams. Mutlu had made her meter into a friendly little creature with a glowing tail (red, yellow, or green, depending on your current energy consumption) and an expressive face (purrs and smiles for low-consumption green, squeaks and frowns for high-consumption red). The "eyes" were LED readouts in either kilowatt-hours or the amount of actual money you are currently throwing out the window.

There were some excellent runners-up—all rewarded with a few hundred dollars and publicity—but the Wattbug was truly amazing. A star was born.

Sterling, others, and I cranked up the old listservs. Word about the Wattbug spread like, well, viral email. Eventually, nice pictures and write-ups began finding their way into prominent places like Wired magazine and (with some PR help from Washington consultant Henry Griggs) The New York Times. Companies came forward ready to help build the Wattbug's innards, or to market the final product. The timing (California's energy crisis) could not have been better. People have begun to clamor, in a small way, for real Wattbugs.

And that's where the story...stops. For the moment.

Despite this star on stage, this upsurge of demand, this great timing, the Wattbug is still living only in the ecosystem where it evolved: the world of virtual ideas. The Wattbug remains "Viridian" in the truest sense, as it is still "a very cool product that does not yet exist, but that everybody would want." Turning good ideas into real products is a complicated process.

But stay tuned: emails are flying, meetings are occurring, plans are afoot. And if all goes well, you will soon be able to have your very own Wattbug, translating radio signals from your traditional meter into lovely and useful information, squeaking at you to replace those power-hog appliances, and smiling and purring to you when you get romantic...by candlelight.

For more information about the Wattbug, visit the Sustainability Institute website at www.sustainer.org.