Ensconced in multiple layers during the recent polar vortex, I curled up with the latest issue of Wired Magazine that featured wearable tech. Although I admit that gadgets like Google Glass and Samsung Galaxy Gear™ speak loudly to the geek in me, I still did not see what I wanted most — a wearable device that maintains core body temperature at 98.60F. I’m not talking about battery-operated socks or chemical hand warmers here; I want the real deal that allows me to ignore forecasts that include “wind chill,” “heat index” or variations thereof. What if wearable tech could enhance our primitive hypothalamus and allow us to move away from fossil-fuel-fired heating and cooling of large spaces? Moreover, what will it take to make the leap from controlling the environment around us to controlling our body’s reaction to it?
Over the last 20 years, escalating energy costs and increasing stakeholder pressure have prompted companies, governments and other organizations to make energy use and greenhouse gas emissions key performance indicators. A combination of heating and cooling system improvements, building envelope enhancements, purchase of energy-efficient products and occupant behavior modification have resulted in measurable ROI and reduced emissions. Disclosing those emissions has also become a norm, with bodies such as CDP seeing rising response rates over the years up to 68% for the S&P 500 in 2013. Still, energy initiatives related to occupant comfort are predominantly focused on getting better at heating and cooling large spaces and not losing all that modified air to the outside world.
Commercial and residential buildings consumed nearly 40% of all energy used in the U.S. in 2012, equivalent to 40 quadrillion British thermal units. Heating, venting and air conditioning (HVAC) are a substantial portion of this consumption. Building engineers are upping their game when it comes to regulating temperature, but let’s face it — we still enter spaces where it is too hot or too cold by far for the external weather conditions. It’s not just commercial buildings either. Dare I mention the thermostat wars that most married couples engage in on a daily basis? We all have different comfort ranges within an absolute of what humans can tolerate and still survive. Trying to keep everyone comfortable while the range of external temperature extremes widens is not a win-win situation.
So is there a different approach to keep humans in their ideal comfort zone no matter the weather? At the International CES (rebranded from Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas this month, two big trends are “Connected Homes” and “Wearable Tech.” One of the areas highlighted for Connected Homes is smarter space heating — devices that learn you patterns and respond accordingly and remote-controlled thermostats — but these are variations on the theme of programmable thermostats, not major leaps in technology. Wearable tech is currently geared toward real-time information flow on your person, and of course, gaming. Connected Homes and Wearable Tech will merge in the not too distant future, but the leap between this and personal temperature regulation is nowhere near front-and-center.
However, there are rays of hope, one of which is Wristify (wristifyme.com). A team of students at MIT has developed a thermoelectric bracelet that regulates the temperature of the individual wearing it by subjecting their skin to alternating pulses of hot or cold, depending on what’s needed to keep them comfortable. Their prototype won first place this year at MIT’s MADMEC, the Materials Science and Engineering program’s annual competition. The students are using the prize money to further develop the device.
Granted, a certain amount of localized space heating and cooling may still be necessary in the future to avoid situations like frozen pipes and overheated server rooms (which also need to be “comfortable” to operate) but why not focus on human temperature regulation in a big way right now? We are a nation of gadget lovers, so why not get wristified? When you consider that we are 50 ppm shy of the 450 ppm tipping point of carbon in the atmosphere, and there is no mandatory reduction program at the federal level in the US right now, we need to think outside the box — or at least outside the boxes in which we work and live.
As Chief Sustainability Officer of Cameron-Cole, Ms. Sasala analyzes the rapidly evolving global business environment and provides strategic advice and tools for clients who seek to design and build resilience across their value chain. With over 20 years of experience in the sustainability and carbon fields, she has been deeply engaged in developing and tailoring best practices in sustainability for corporations in all economic sectors, as well as NGOs, local governments and universities. More information on Cameron-Cole may be found at www.cameron-cole.com.