The Planet

The Latest in Conservation Tech: Gamify Your Home Water Use

by Mark Hay

October 12, 2015

Whether you’re a Californian confronting drought restrictions or just some eco-minded soul, if you’re looking for products to help reduce your home water usage, you’re mostly going to find fixtures and devices that change the way one of your appliances accesses water. These systems, like the super-hyped Nebia showerhead, might do a good job of passively reducing the amount of water you use when taking a shower. Yet they’re not so good at helping consumers to change global water usage or their outlook on their own water consumption. In fact, they even run the risk of making people complacent with the meager set savings these devices provide. But recently a little startup out of Barcelona has announced a new device geared towards solving this one-appliance water conservation rut, coaxing buyers into changing their overall water use habits through observation and gamification. Dubbed the Ôasys, this strange glowing disc bills itself as the FitBit of home water conservation, but in theory it has considerably more potential than that fitness wearable letdown—although the Ôasys does face some serious challenges before it can come onto the market.

Now in prototype mode and raising funds on Kickstarter (with an eye towards shipping products by May 16), the Ôasys is, on the user end, basically a 9.5-inch wide wall-mounted white disc with a smaller, 3.5-inch display screen at its center. The disc hooks into a band placed around your house’s main water pump that sends wireless information about the amount of water being used in your home. Glowing different colors depending on the type of information displayed, the disc’s infoscreen uses that data to fill you in on daily usage trends and takes in information on the surrounding area’s weather to contextualize your water usage. Basically, it can alert you to times when conservation is important, periods of time over which your water usage is increasing or decreasing, and even alert you (via smartphone updates) when there appears to be a leak in one of your house’s pipes.

The FitBit excercise tracker. Image by Becky Stern via Flickr.

Ôasys’s founders compare their product to FitBit because they hope this constant data flow will motivate people to practice mindfulness and tweak their habits, just as the wearable device (and all of its relatives) uses distance and caloric burn data to motivate pro-fitness life changes. Yet that parallel actually doesn’t do credit to the simple, yet compelling potential of Ôasys.

FitBit and similar devices actually suffer from a host of well-documented accuracy problems caused by their inability to capture certain types of exercise or accurately measure sleep. The FitBit’s simplistic caloric burn calculations are often off the mark by at least 10 percent. Unable to account for the complex metabolic idiosyncrasies, hormonal shifts, or peaks and valleys of weight loss, wearables like the FitBit often mislead people into thinking they’re doing more or less than they actually are, leading to poor results, disillusionment, and at worst apathy towards important health issues.

Conversely, Ôasys isn’t measuring a complex system. It measures water flow—something easily quantified. Your meter reader’s been doing that for ages, and there are already industrial technologies that can do the same Ôasys-style dynamic monitoring very accurately and reliably. Ôasys just promises to popularize that technology and turn it into a tool for self-improvement. It might seem harder for a user to conceptualize how to reduce water consumption, no matter how accurate the readers are, than to increase the number of steps they take in a day, no matter how silly a FitBit’s actual readings are. But with the right interactive push from the folks behind it, the Ôasys could conceivably guide users to explore not just one, but a host of best-of water-saving fixtures, devices, and practices to progressively reduce their at-home consumption.

The Oasys team, Àlex Pérez, Daniel Martin, Marc Mateu, and Pep Viladomat

While Ôasys has a leg up on FitBit in some ways though, it still falls prey to the key flaw of that fitness device (and many other modern motivation innovations). At their core, FitBit and Ôasys are both efforts to gamify everyday chores—using metrics to motivate new strategies and competition. But by now, it’s well established that gamification only works long-term (and both the FitBit and Ôasys are meant to be long-term behavioral change aids) if it actually works like a game, with discrete tasks, puzzles, objects, and progression through levels of difficulty and complexity. When gamification is nothing more than putting smiley faces and accomplishment badges on top of numbers, then that’s not really a game, but a simplistic feedback system to which humans become rapidly inured, especially when the system is trying to incentivize something we really don’t want to do.

For FitBit, that shortcoming has played out in very poor long-term use statistics, with only half of the product’s 20 million-plus users staying active for any serious amount of time. Those who do stay active are most likely people who are already motivated to exercise, as opposed to those needing extra incentives.

The same problem could be true for Ôasys. Being told that you’re wasteful and then receiving information on simple changes that can make a difference could be motivating for a while. But it could get pretty boring or irritating pretty quickly as well, leading to rapid burnout and reduction in the system’s long-term effectiveness. Developing a series of goals and missions aimed at improving behaviors and acquiring new conservation devices within a guided, narrative structure could address some of that. But once you “beat that game” and achieved optimal water efficiency, then what? The “game” of maintaining a long set of best practices until it becomes internalized, environmentally friendly behavior would likely get old even faster than FitBit does because you’d no longer see any positive change in your numbers—just the occasional sad, negative dip. And even if Ôasys worked perfectly, pulling users towards long-term behavioral changes and enduring system engagement, it could still wind up feeling like a pointless endeavor, given how little of the world’s total water usage comes from even the most profligate of homes.

Oasys sample display screens.

All of that said, while Ôasys definitely isn’t going to save the world’s water crisis (as the advertising for it may lead you to believe), it could help people to navigate situations like the one that inspired its creation: the ongoing California drought. With its potential to integrate climate condition information, the device can give people a solid sense of when it’s really important to cut down on water usage and how to do so. The Ôasys can provide short-term incentives to invest in other long-term technological fixes (like the Nebia or low-flush toilets), and perhaps even compare users’ consumption to others around them, shaming them into compliance with water-restriction norms. That’s a powerful tool for reducing pressures on your local environment, so precarious water tables can be preserved while large-scale solutions come online. It’s also a good way to get people thinking about drought management in a more proactive than panicked way.

All caveats aside, there’s a good chance that Ôasys could take off. Comparisons to FitBit, which has become a very successful product despite all its flaws, along with buzz around water-saving technologies and drought concerns set the product up for a decent launch. Unfortunately, at the moment relatively poor marketing is holding it back. The device’s Kickstarter page, which has raised just over $9,000 from 47 backers (of a desired $56,014) so far, is one of the least dynamic or convincing I’ve seen in a while. The incentives offered by the campaign are basically the same early-bird special over and over with no information on how much a backer would actually save, while its stretch goals seem absurdly high and just involve manufacturing the system in alternative color schemes. And the system’s tagline, “be mindful, save water,” both sounds like a trite PSA and lacks a catchy hook. But if the system can overcome its uninspired initial marketing, make it to consumers, and inspire a little word of mouth and press coverage, then it could actually make a difference in home water consumption—even if just in drought-prone areas. It probably won’t be a world-shattering difference. But if the Ôasys inspires awareness of other water-saving technologies and conversation on the issue it won’t be insubstantial either, when compared to other single-device fixes. At the very least, it’ll be a better tool for self-improvement than FitBit.

All images of Ôasys products and team couretsy of Ôasys.

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The Latest in Conservation Tech: Gamify Your Home Water Use