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Energy: will we ever get a level playing field?

24 October 2011

Energy issues never seem to be out of the headlines, do they? Last week, energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne got into a huddle with the Big Six and came out of it with a disappointingly anodyne statement for consumers. No, there was to be no action on energy prices – the wholesale markets rule, OK. Instead, we were told to shop around and insulate. Well, thank you Mr Huhne, but I think we all realised that such actions, though laudable, are only a temporary plaster and that we shall eventually have to face the fact that energy is, for the foreseeable future at least, going to get very expensive indeed.

Not surprisingly, this non-event of a meeting elicited the usual cries of “unfair!” from consumers and their representative bodies. There were calls for the establishment of an independent energy pool from which all – including new entrants into the energy distribution markets - could make their purchases, ending the arcane practices of an all-powerful cartel that both produces and distributes gas and electricity for the UK market and opening the way to greater competition. The tariff system, too, came under attack for its deliberate complexity, which goes some way to ensuring that 85 per cent of the energy-purchasing population never ventures to seek a ‘better deal’. All hot air, of course, as the chill of winter bites and a record number of households descend into fuel poverty.

Inevitably, all this brought the fossil fuels versus renewables debate sharply into focus again, with Lord Lawson fiercely defending the shale gas exploration and production activities in the North West against popular claims that a series of very small earthquakes in the Blackpool area might just possibly have been linked to ‘fracking’ (hydraulic fracturing), a necessary process in the extraction of these gas reserves. The British Geological Survey is investigating and even this august body has not ruled out a connection altogether.

Fracking has also gained a rather bad press in the United States where unbridled exploitation of shale gas reserves has led, in some notable cases, to ground water pollution and kitchen taps that double as flame throwers. A bit of an exaggeration, I agree, but for a country hungry for plentiful homespun energy supplies, the counterblast comes as something of a surprise, given the fact that literally trillions of cubic metres of untapped reserves could end that nation’s dependence on a rather unstable global energy market for decades to come.

The UK’s Global Warming Policy Foundation, launched by Lord Lawson and Dr Benny Peiser in the run-up to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, published a report back in May about what they describe as the ‘shale gas revolution’ and its likely implications for UK and international climate policy. ‘The Shale Gas Shock’, written by Matt Ridley with a foreword by Professor Freeman Dyson, finds that shale gas is not only abundant but relatively cheap and therefore promises to take market share from nuclear, coal and renewable energy and to replace oil in some transport and industrial uses, over coming decades.

According to Ridley, abundant and relatively cheap shale gas promises to lower the cost of gas relative to oil, coal and renewables, postponing indefinitely the exhaustion of fossil fuels and making carbon dioxide emissions reduction possible without raising energy prices. Meanwhile, in his foreword, Dyson admits that shale gas is not a perfect solution to our economic and environmental problems, but it is here when it is most needed.

The eyes have it: computer-inspired creativity
Do you, like me, think the samey nature of modern product design has rather a lot to do with that now indispensable tool – the computer aided design (CAD) software package? Well, constraints on creativity imposed by CAD tools are being overcome, thanks to a novel system that incorporates eye-tracking technology. ‘Designing with Vision’, a system devised by researchers at The Open University and the University of Leeds, is breaking down rigid distinctions between man and machine and, hopefully, should help designers to recover intuitive elements of the design process that are otherwise suppressed when working with CAD.

Traditional design tools, such as pen and paper, are increasingly being replaced by 2D and 3D computerised drawing packages. The uptake of CAD is helping to increase productivity and improve the quality of designs, reducing errors and unnecessary wastage when a product is finally manufactured. But the switch to CAD may have a downside too. The introduction of digital technologies often forces people to change how they work so they fit with the technology, rather than the other way around. In creative disciplines, this inevitably constrains the results produced – a scenario that would be a disaster for designers, according to Steve Garner, Professor of Design at The Open University.

“Creativity is a fundamental building block of the design process,” says Professor Garner. “The eye-tracking system identifies which part of the design sketch the user is drawn to, making the human-machine interface far more fluid. The result is a synergy between human ingenuity and machine-based digital technology.”

“The digitisation of design could potentially stifle innovation and exclude people with a lot to offer but who work in ways that are not compatible with machines,” adds Professor Alison McKay, Professor of Design Systems at the University of Leeds. “Instead, we want to create digital design systems that are themselves designed in response to the needs of real designers.”

In the ‘Designing with Vision’ project, researchers focused on an early stage in the design process that involves drawing, viewing, selecting and manipulating shapes. This process is common to designers working in areas such as fashion, graphics and consumer goods packaging.

Designers who work with shapes tend to intuitively home in on certain areas in initial sketches, using these as a starting point to move forward. However, this element of subconscious selection is difficult to replicate with CAD, because the software package is unable to ‘see’ what might be catching the designer’s eye.

To redress this, researchers added eye-tracking technology to a CAD system, giving the digital technology a more fluid human-machine interface. This produced a design system that could identify and select shapes of interest automatically within a drawn sketch, according to the designer’s gaze.

The system was put through its paces by groups of professional and student designers to check that it worked in practice. The tests confirmed that the combination of eye-tracking technology and conventional mouse-based input allowed initial design sketches to be manipulated and developed according to the user’s subconscious visual cues.

“We are not Luddites, we want to work with technologies like CAD,” Professor McKay said. “We envisage a future for design that combines creativity and digital technologies, and in this scenario, is able to support designers working with shapes early in the design processes, before the shape has been fixed.”

‘Designing with Vision’, is being funded by The Leverhulme Trust. The prototype design system is free to download from the project web site.
Les Hunt

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