MIT’s ‘Local Warming’ exhibit previews the energy-saving future of personalized climate control

'Local Warming' tracks your movement around a room and surrounds you in a thermal 'cloud.' (Photo: Senseable City Lab)
'Local Warming' tracks your movement around a room and surrounds you in a thermal 'cloud.' (Photo: Senseable City Lab)

Fancy being ensconsed in a heat bubble as you move about the office building in the cold winter? An art installation dubbed “Local Warming,” which offers a preview of personalized climate control, returns from the prestigious Vienna Architecture Biennale next week. This whimsical, well-received design from MIT’s SENSEable City Lab also promises to be an energy saver.

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Photo: Senseable City Lab

Local Warming uses a Wi-Fi-based motion tracking system, developed by MIT’s Center for Wireless Networks and Mobile Computing, to track the movement of people in an indoor space. When this tracker senses someone moving through a hallway or room, it sends the person’s coordinates to an array of IR lamps and attendant optical elements mounted on the ceiling. Immediately, the heating elements respond. They rotate, and focus a localized heating beam on the person on the move.

Professor Carlo Ratti, director of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, says the idea of such a thermal “cloud” first came to him as he sat at an outdoor café in Milan. The heaters positioned alongside him for warmth were less than effective, and he recalls thinking that the warmth could have been better aimed at the diners. It then occurred to him that most office buildings are also heated for pervasive warmth without focusing on individuals in any particular space. It seemed like a rather ineffective use of energy.

Photo: Senseable City Lab

Research on buildings at MIT revealed that there was, indeed, a dramatic lack of correlation between building occupancy and energy consumed by heating systems. “We thought that there was a tremendous opportunity to save energy through the use of dynamically controlled highly localized heating,” says Ratti. The team published its findings in a journal and set about designing a prototype to tackle this universal problem.

Now, they plan to go from prototype to product. (Ratti’s lab familiar with this process, as the group is also behind Copenhagen Wheel, which coverts regular bikes into hybrid e-bikes, and are poised to hit the streets soon.) Ratti mentions that a product that comes out of this new design will one day integrate seamlessly into the built environment. Compared to the art installation, it will be made of inexpensive components, and there will be no moving parts. “It should be as easy as putting up a false ceiling in both existing and new buildings,” he says.

Local Warming will be of optimum use in large spaces with a low occupancy, Ratti says. And it will be as effective as traditional heating in a densely occupied area. Occupancy, however, is a function of time. There will fewer people at night even in a much-used corridor or atrium, and so the entire area may not have to be heated 24/7 as it is currently.

Though Local Warming will not go from prototype to product this winter, Ratti says there is a possibility that the art installation might find a home on the MIT campus in the upcoming months. So try to stay warm as you wait for the dawn of precise, personalized indoor climate control.