VentureBeat: If there is some inconvenience or change that’s required, what is the benefit that you get in return?

Becerik-Gerber: If you’re healthier, if you have less back pain, if you’re more productive, if you’re more comfortable. I was driving here and I thought, “Tomorrow I don’t have any meetings. I should find someplace on campus to read.” Because I don’t want to be in my office all day. But if I look forward to going to my office and reading my papers—there’s a benefit to me being here. Students are coming through. Colleagues are coming through. But I’m already thinking about how I want to be somewhere else tomorrow. I’m trying to escape this building. If I’m here, that’s the benefit, to my colleagues and students and anyone else.

VentureBeat: What have you found about the way people keep their workplaces? The thing that always stands out to me is how, in the game industry, everyone massively decorates their cubicles.

Becerik-Gerber: Well, I have all my kids’ pictures. That’s my decoration. Everybody personalizes their space in some way.

Above: Soyoung Moon, a grad student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, shows off a smart desk built by USC and Arup.

Image Credit: USC

VentureBeat: We try to make it livable even when it doesn’t seem to be.

Becerik-Gerber: Cubicles—I don’t know. I was set against cubicles in my previous life. I hated them. No privacy, no control over anything. But everyone personalizes their space, open or not.

VentureBeat: Would this work in a more open space?

Becerik-Gerber: This is the whole idea. We’re cutting away the centralized control and bringing personalized control systems to the desk. I should be able to control my lighting, my temperature, and other things around me, so that the building or facilities management isn’t telling me what lighting or temperature I’m living. You get a micro-environment, a micro-climate.

That’s better for energy consumption as well. You can relax the requirements. Air conditioning doesn’t have to work so hard to make everything 73 when it’s 80 outside. I have local control here. If you look at the doors here, my neighbor over there is in, but not the other three. Still, their space is conditioned. We’re wasting money that way.

VentureBeat: I read about a company that makes air filter that blows clean air in your direction. It creates this cocoon of about four feet around you that’s very filtered. You don’t have to clean all of the air, just the part people sit in.

Becerik-Gerber: It’s a similar idea, yeah. So much of most buildings is empty, or at least empty for part of the day. Summer is different than fall. Next week, obviously, everyone will be here. Why deal with temperature and lighting and air quality for the entire space when we can make it local?

We ran a study and did simulations. The theoretical requirement is that 80 percent of the people in buildings be satisfied with the temperature, and with central conditioning it’s just impossible, because of the differences in our preferences. Bringing it to a local micro-climate level, you’ll save money and make people more comfortable.

These three offices here are connected to each other. My neighbor is a tsunami researcher. He has six computers and a couple of servers in his office, and the thermostat happens to be in there with them. It gets super hot in there. We’re all tied together, and look at my office here. There’s nothing. I’m getting blown away with cold air because it’s super hot next door, and he’s not even in there. It’s just his devices running. Again, we’re trying to get this to more personalized levels.

Above: Arup’s version of a smart desk.

Image Credit: Arup

VentureBeat: How long have you worked on this? What’s the status of your research today?

Becerik-Gerber: We’ve worked on different components for a very long time. Thermal comfort has been eight years, visual comfort, this and that. The desk started last year. An outside company, Arup, originally developed the desk. Their desk is very sophisticated. It looks much better than ours, with all the sensors and stuff. We’re adding the use of machine learning tools to model people’s preferences, and now, through a recent grant from the NSF, we’ll be adding the negotiation between the desk and the user. We’re adding the posture side. The desk, then, we’ve been working on for a year.

VentureBeat: This is something that would eventually be commercialized, then?

Becerik-Gerber: Right, that’s the whole idea. Arup is a global engineering firm. It’s exciting to be working with them, because it means there’s a higher chance to commercialize this. They’re constantly looking to generate new business and take things to their clients. Researchers aren’t always thinking that way. It’s very likely that it’s going to be commercialized between USC and them. We’re in a collaborative cycle. They have some very big clients, like Google and Facebook and other companies that own a lot of office real estate. They’re in the buildings infrastructure business – architectural, structural, mechanical. They’ll be reaching out to a lot of companies.

VentureBeat: Are you testing here at USC?

Becerik-Gerber: We have two here so far. With the recent grant, which came two or three weeks ago, we’ll be building 10 more. We’ll put the desks in Arup’s Los Angeles office. But first we want to test everything here, so when we go there it’s perfect. In their London office they have maybe 10 already, and they’re adding 10 more, plus others in San Francisco, Sydney, and Berlin. We’re collecting data from a lot of locations.

You can see that we have all the electronics down here. It’s a Raspberry Pi, and then all the sensors are manufactured by Tinkerforge – temperature, humidity. Then we have the server over there where it’s pushing the data. On this screen over here we can scroll through and look at it.

VentureBeat: Could you make a bigger screen if you needed to?

Becerik-Gerber: We’re planning to get a bigger one, yes. We also have a USB charge and a wireless charger here. This panel is just to access the power plugs and everything. It’s two-layer plywood, CNC cut, with channels inside for all the cables to go through. We’re not set on this cable management. We’re thinking about a better solution so you don’t have all this crazy stuff hanging down. When we designed it, we designed it for someone using a laptop. I have a desktop and two screens, so the cables go everywhere.

VentureBeat: Did you make it hollow for that purpose?

Becerik-Gerber: Yeah, the cables go through there. There’s a channel down here going all the way through, so we can run cables wherever we want. That’s why it’s so wide. All the data goes to the server and we can view it on this dashboard.

VentureBeat: What kind of things do you measure?

Becerik-Gerber: This is motion, height of the desk, CO2, temperature, pressure, and then for lighting we have lighting density, the color of the light, and power consumption of the computer and the monitors.

VentureBeat: Does it sense the activity of the user?

Becerik-Gerber: If you’re standing or sitting, yes, that we can infer from the height of the desk. Whether you’re using the desk can be inferred from the motion sensor down here. Whether I’m standing or sitting and working, there’s always some motion to detect. Here you can see that I got to the office around this time. Even from the temperature—we leave the air conditioning off at night, so the temperature doesn’t change that much, and then when someone’s here we turn it on.

We also look at the power consumption of different devices and connect that information to determine that you’re having a meeting or working at your computer. We’ve done that in residential buildings as well, with other activities. We can infer from the noise level and the occupancy as well as power consumption and determine what you’re working on. Depending on the task you’re working on, your preferences might change.

VentureBeat: What about the light level?

Becerik-Gerber: We don’t have a window here, so it doesn’t change that much. When we expand to other places and start collecting data where there’s more natural light, we can do more. Here it’s pretty much just on and off. In London they have lights which face upward from the desk, and it changes color and brightness based on the sunlight. Blue light exposure during the day is good for you. It keeps you alert. During the evening hours you shouldn’t be exposed to as much. The LEDs they have there do that.

With the new grant we’re adding more and more functions. This desk already has more sensors than any I’ve seen, and we’re working on adding more. We’re looking at how to use thermal imaging to infer the thermal comfort of the user. We’re also working with air speed, air flow. We want to add local ventilation. We’re looking at ways to infer how much air is coming toward you, that kind of thing.

What’s exciting to me are the things we can’t see. How can we take all this data, all the charts, and understand what people are doing, what activities they’re undertaking, how much energy they’re using, and what they want to do, what their preferences are? How can we get them to better practices? All these things, we can’t see. They’re all algorithms and different levels of intervention.

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