Work on home sensors targets energy efficiency

Microsoft's US$200,000 endowed fellowship goes to the University of Washington's Shwetak Patel

Homeowners who want to know which electrical device in their house consumes the most energy will soon be able to find out due to the research of Shwetak Patel. The assistant professor from the University of Washington is one of this year's recipients of Microsoft's Research Faculty Fellowships.

Consumer electronic devices have a so-called switched-mode power supply that generates a unique electrical magnetic interference. This electrical noise can be detected and assigned to the device causing it. Patel and his students at the Ubiquitous Computing Lab (UbiComp) at the University of Washington have developed a plug-in sensor that provides data about the various electrical device in the house. "You can plug it into any power outlet and it allows you [to] figure out which of your devices are running," Patel said.

The data collected by the sensor, called ElectriSense, could be used to provide homeowners with an itemized bill, according to Patel. Instead of showing only the total energy consumption it would show the consumption on a per-appliance basis. Patel co-founded a company based on his research in 2008 while pursuing his doctorate at the Georgia Institute of Technology. This startup company was acquired in 2010 by Belkin International, which is now marketing and commercializing the work.

Being one of this year's research fellows means Patel gets US$200,000 from Microsoft to be used at his discretion. Each year the grant program provides a total of $1.4 million in funding, of which each chosen fellow receives up to $200,000. Patel said he particularly appreciates the fact that the money "is a gift and that there are no strings attached."

Patel has not decided yet what exactly to spend the money on. He wants to start new projects and the grant will allow him to do this quickly, he said. He plans to devote parts of the grant for new equipment and hiring graduate students.

One of the areas Patel said he will spend the money on is mobile help monitoring, another of the four areas of his research. Previous products resulting from the research in that field include a system for cough monitoring. Using a mobile phone, it could track and monitor the number of cough episodes a sick person suffers from. Patel said he wants to start more projects dealing with similar devices that enable permanent surveillance of medical and health parameters. "This could, for example, enhance therapy for asthmatics," he said.

New human-computer interfaces are the third area of Patel's research. He also does research on low-power sensors.

Patel received his Bachelor of Science and doctorate from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowship is not the first award marking Patel as an outstanding researcher in his field. In 2009 Technology Review magazine named him as one of the 35 most promising researchers under the age of 35, and he won the title "top innovator of the year" from Seattle Business Magazine in 2010.

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