Location and traceability in times of pandemic

Yesterday (March 11th, 2020), the World Health Organisation’s Director General characterised COVID-19 as a pandemic. Today, in Montréal where reelyActive is based, and around the world, many find themselves directly and personally affected by measures intended to prevent the spread of the virus, including business, institution and school closures, as well as travel restrictions and self-quarantine.

In our team’s adjustment to these changes, we are prompted to recall use cases of our technology particularly applicable to the situation in which we, and countless others, find themselves, and which we’ll present in this blog post.

Working remotely but not alone

In 2014, our clients who were developing The Thing System, worked remotely from California and the UK, and devised a clever use of their technology and ours: whenever a team member was present in their home office (as detected by our tech), a light would turn on in their colleague’s home office halfway around the world (enabled by their tech). In this way, each team member was aware, through calm technology, when their colleague was “at work”, so that they could confidently initiate communication at an appropriate moment, whenever required.

Beaming in

In 2016, our clients Event Presence reached out to make their Beam mobile telepresence experience location-aware. Can’t physically attend an event or conference? They offered a means to attend remotely with the ability to move around and interact freely. As “beaming in” to an unfamiliar space can be disorienting, we worked with them to provide real-time location and context to their remote attendees. Working with the Beams, we found them incredibly useful not only for remotely attending events, but also for working remotely on the very deployments we were developing. On many occasions we even found ourselves chatting Beam-to-Beam in the venue, surely to the bewilderment of passers-by, but very much to the benefit of what we were working to achieve!

Tracing person-to-person and person-to-asset interactions

In 2019, our clients at USC deployed the first trials of DirAct, a technology we co-developed, to automatically capture person-to-person and person-to-asset interactions in an active hospital setting. Hospital staff opt-in to wear a Bluetooth Low Energy badge which detects other badges or asset tags in proximity, and which relays this information via our gateway infrastructure temporarily deployed throughout the hospital. Our colleagues at USC collect this information as part of a study to determine workplace stress factors, however it is not difficult to imagine how this same deployment could be used for traceability of interactions between staff and patients, as well as with hand-washing stations, in the context of a contagious disease such as COVID-19.

The measures currently undertaken to curb the spread of COVID-19 remind us of the pertinence of our physical location—and that of others—in our daily lives, especially as these become impeded or restricted.

In these times, it is not difficult to envisage the wide-reaching potential of real-time location technology, as evidenced by the above examples to which we’ve proudly contributed. From wherever you find yourself reading this we trust that you will stay healthy as much as innovative!

Predict not what you can create

We’re all familiar with some variant of the adage:

The best way to predict the future is to create it.

Our first blog post of each of the past three years has been about prediction. This year will be different.

What’s different this year is our move into a new office which will serve as both a showcase and a living lab. We share this new space with GenieLab, a non-profit with which we’ve worked closely over the years. Our artistic collaborations will be among the installations. But most importantly,

we’ll be able to demonstrate what it means to make a physical space searchable like the web.

Our workplace will be the workplace of the future, one which we create! To reinforce that point, we’re calling the office reelyActive Parc. Fitting because it is at the corner of rue Sherbrooke and avenue du Parc in Montréal, but even more so because of the legacy of another PARC: the Palo Alto Research Center.

If you’re not familiar with the story, in the 1970s and early 80s, Xerox PARC incubated many of the technologies we still associate with the modern digital workplace, including:

  • the graphical user interface (GUI)
  • bitmap graphics
  • WYSIWYG text editing
  • the laser printer
  • Ethernet

as well as many more software innovations. Moreover, Alan Kay, a significant contributor to PARC’s innovations is credited with not only saying, but proving that:

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

In 2017, we were fortunate to have an e-mail exchange with Kay sparking our blog post on creating the next computing industry. We kick off the new decade in our Park Avenue Research Centre with the ambition to do exactly that.

The IoT finally runs away from home

Last week, in her Stacey on IoT newsletter, the one and only tech journalist who has shared our passion and optimism for the IoT since the earliest days of the hype wave of 2012 finally changed her tune, declaring that “the state of the smart home in 2018 is pretty disappointing.”

We’re going to have to continue waiting for a home that truly reacts in an intuitive way to our needs and expectations. Before we get there, we’ll need [1] standards around presence detection, [2] a way to recognize people in the home, and [3] stored information about their preferences. And in a smart home, those preferences will be based on a computer analysis of habits, [*] not someone sitting down for an hour to program a specific set of actions.

We first met Stacey Higginbotham at SXSW in 2013 when she was writing countless articles on IoT startups for GigaOM. A few months previous to that meeting, we had already dismissed the smart home as a likely spearhead of IoT advancement, based on a decade of our own experiences. And while Stacey’s latest post is in keeping with this view, hope for the greater IoT is nonetheless far from lost when we examine — outside the context of the smart home — the three concerns she raises.

1. Standards around presence detection

The reelyActive co-founders’ experience in real-time location systems (RTLS) dates back to 2004 and we can attest that the benchmark in location has always been to “put the dot on the map”. Recognising that precision location only matters for a small subset of applications, we founded reelyActive instead on the premise of location to the nearest point of interest or zone. And, in 2014, while literally exploring the notion of Google Analytics for the Physical World we stumbled upon a standard for representing points of interest and zones: the URL.

Said differently, by modelling physical spaces as webpages, with each zone having its own unique URL, it becomes possible to represent physical presence like a click on a webpage. Today our technology is based on this paradigm. Where commercial interests have failed to produce a standard for presence detection, the Internet provides a viable option for anyone prepared to think web-first. In short, there is a standard around presence detection: just click your heels and say “there’s no place like the smart home!”

2. A way to recognise people

In September of 2013, Stacey wrote Loophole in iBeacon could let iPhones guard your likes instead of bombard you with coupons, in which reelyActive demonstrated iOS devices “advertising” the presence of their users. Indeed, for almost five years, there has been a way to recognise people via their mobile devices using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). And last year, we took the concept even further with reelyApp making it easy to “Advertise” yourself with the Physical Web, and beyond….

However, the fact that five years on, neither iOS nor Android is keen to endorse this feature confirms the fact that we were indeed exploiting a “loophole”. But, in building barriers rather than promoting permissionless innovation, the smartphone titans have opened the door to a viable alternative… In short, there is a standardised, accessible way to recognise people.

3. Stored information about people’s preferences

Until recently, there were two options: Personal Data Lockers and Facebook. And while we detailed exactly how Facebook could share their users preferences in the real-world in real-time, the company’s recent Cambridge Analytica scandal doesn’t bode well for this happening anytime soon.

Fortunately, the Internet again provides a standard for representing oneself and one’s preferences: JSON-LD and Schema.org. The pair have been championed by Google since about 2015, and we ourselves host our own open data locker (based on our open source json-silo) and represent common connected devices in this format through our Sniffypedia project. In short, there is a standardised way to store (and retrieve) information about people and their preferences.

* Without the need for human entered data

We can’t stop referencing Kevin Ashton’s definition of the IoT as the ability for “computers to observe, identify and understand the world—without the limitations of human-entered data“. As Stacey says, “someone sitting down for an hour to program a specific set of actions” is, by definition, the antithesis to the IoT. The smart home is therefore, as predicted, an unlikely spearhead of a pervasive IoT.

But while the home remains our primary social environment (the ‘first’ place), let’s not forget the workplace (the ‘second’ place) as well as the diverse candidates serving as the ‘third’ place. Among the leading applications of our IoT platform is the workplace (think offices, healthcare facilities and even retail stores) where workers have plenty of compelling reasons to be detected, recognised and treated in according to their preferences (video). In each instance, the aforementioned standards for proximity, identification and representation are being successfully applied, and the definition of the IoT begins to ring true.

The IoT is finally running away from home to a place where it actually works today.   That’s a good thing.   In time, it’ll make its way back home, but probably not before stopping by a few ‘third’ places along the way.