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Posted by on May 9, 2011

Mobile energy consumption and production: using the voice and the body to power our mobile technology

I was just reading an interesting short news article from The Telegraph titled “Mobile phones could be charged by the power of speech” and it opened my mind up a bit to the concept of “energy scavenging.” Essentially, this refers to using basic functions of the human body itself as energy producers. Granted, that might appear on the surface as being a bit scary, using the body as energy farm, but it makes perfect sense. In this instance, the article refers to using audio to power mobile phones. Essentially the power of the voice itself is used to produce enough electricity to keep the phone running. Downside is that this creates an incentive for people to keep talking (anyone on a commuter train might see this as a fatal flaw). 

The voice seems to be the most obvious choice for this type of energy harvesting, although not the most robust in my estimation. I suspect that greater application will come from capturing ambient sounds from the city, the street, the traffic itself and converting that into electricity (which in turn powers the technology on our person). This goes a bit farther in advancing the notion of wearable technology. Not only are we embedding technology ubiquitously on our person, we are using the body itself to dynamically provide it with energy to function. What is important is that this type of technology offloads this cognitive act (me consciously realizing that my battery is low and consciously choosing to recharge it) to an automated activity. It outsources this cognitive load, freeing this cognition for more advanced interactions with local environments. Some might still choose to sit there and do nothing; others will see this as masterfully augmentative. Increasing the capacity of the human being to influence, interact, and draw meaning from their local environments. 

Further, this places much greater emphasis on the non-textual interactions with the environment, the sounds, sights, and friction of daily life. I mean the good kind of friction. The kind that generates energy when you walk (with energy harvesting devices to capture it), using the turnstiles in the subway to capture electricity to power the station itself (as Tokyo does in its subway). The kind that embraces the natural movements of the human body through the navigation of daily life. A cyborg, yes, but the good kind, the augmented human kind. 

Above all of that, at least as I see it, is the greater emphasis on the ambient, the seeming flotsam and jetsam of this waking audible life. By capturing a process whereas the noise itself transitions from being a nuisance (it will remain a conscious nuisance) to something that provides value (even unknowingly), audio becomes significant. I say this as a person who abhors the actual use of a mobile phone as a phone (audio to audio). What I am intrigued by is capturing audio as a vehicle for energy and quite possibly capturing audio (subsequently) as a vehicle for constructing meaning. First, by scavenging we introduce it as a subconscious value additive. Then, it works its way up towards our conscious self. Or maybe not. 

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  1. This is one of the coolest ideas yet, Sean. I too can appreciate a “self-winding” cell phone. My problem, as with watches, may be overwinding ;-)Thanks for the fascinating post!

  2. True there. A self winding cell-phone, laptop, all seem appropriate. I think anything that actually encourages motion (kinesthetic) and harnesses that motion makes perfect sense (and also provides an impetus for us to get up and exercising!). This is the way to go and it seems like many are actively capitalizing on that Thanks for the comments!

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