The Internet of Things is the idea that we can digitally connect everything around us for sensing, tracking, and control. How might this concept apply to the office – an intranet of things?
Imagine – you approach your place of work and your phone detects your location by GPS geo-fencing and tells you about your meetings and tasks. As your enter the building, your phone and smartwatch connect to the private network and your presence is made available to your direct team while the lift system anticipates your desired floor to optimise its capacity.
Your tablet, now that it’s on the network and within the building, syncs some sensitive files from SharePoint, and alerts you to a change in legislation.
As you step out of the lift and into the open-plan office, your phone notes your location based on beacons and shows which hot-desks are available. As you sit down, the chair recognises your watch and adjusts to your known preferences. The desk’s height follows suit and the screen powers on.
You log-on with your fingerprint, and while the local air-conditioning adjusts to your personal preference, you remember you need a coffee and stand up. The PC locks automatically because your smartwatch indicates that you’re moving away. Your favourite mug seems to have gone missing, but fortunately it is trackable, and it turns up in the sink (if only there was a way to automate dish washing).
As you wait for your coffee to pour, you check your watch for the presence of your team mates. Jenny has just arrived so you ask the coffee machine to make her ‘usual’. You’ve a meeting coming up in a room you haven’t been to before. Luckily, your phone has plotted a route to the specific room and warns you that you need to allow 10 minutes to get there.
How realistic is all this?
PC auto-unlock / auto-lock by proximity
It is already possible to set up a PC to automatically flip to the lock screen when your Bluetooth enabled smartphone moves away. It is not without issues though – what if you’re not at your desk, but merely on the other side of the partition?
One organisation I know had an intern create a program for a PC at the entrance of the large open-plan office. A visitor / colleague could type a name, and the system would use the person’s IP to highlight their location on a floorplan.
Clock in / clock out
For employees that clock in, iBeacon is being used to automate the process – employees use a phone app that clocks them in when they enter specific areas. This is more accurate and abolishes queuing for the clocking in machine.
Buzz me when my boss gets back
Perhaps the intranet could help us track when a colleague returns or gets near, helping us remember to get their input or sign-off on something. Individuals can already do this with their friends and family via their mobile phones – think Foursquare or Facebook check-ins. Would we want our ‘mood info’ transmitted as well? ‘My blood pressure is high and my heart rate is increasing’ … best ask about that day off later.
Miami airport uses iBeacons to accurately tell passengers how to get to their boarding gate, providing the distance and a walking map. iBeacons provide more accurate indoor location than GPS, using a network of local Bluetooth sensors instead of global satellites or wifi.
The same principle could be used to guide people to meeting rooms in offices (and remind people to wrap up a meeting early if their next meeting is a long walk).
Portable asset tracking
Assets can be tracked with RFID tags to let you know the location of portable field kit such as measuring devices, toolboxes, safety-wear etc. They’re cheap enough to attach to mugs too. Maybe with these we can finally prove that it is always Jean from Accounts that swipes your stapler.
Intelligent buildings and smart building management systems go further than remote-control thermostats. Home systems can now be internet-enabled, so it is feasible that employees could have individual controls, similar to seat-specific aircon in cars. It’s been found that temperature (along with privacy) is a major concern of cubicle and open-plan workers.
Meeting room management
Electronic room management has been around for some time, such as Steelcase’s Room Wizard.
I really wish that meeting rooms had a universal interface, so I could use my favourite tablet app to turn on the projector, close blinds, start VC etc. rather than having to learn a new interface every time.
There are devices that can monitor and display electricity usage for the home, but has such tech been integrated into building management systems yet? If energy use was made explicit, it would be more powerful than those ‘switch off the lights’ stickers. Imagine competition and ‘green league table’ between departments.
Geo-fencing sensitive information
Access to sensitive information can be geo-fenced so employees can only view such material on-premises. Alternatively, Titus automatically deletes sensitive emails if a device is taken into a high-risk area. Geo-fencing isn’t so futuristic; you can do lots with location aware apps, like Reminders on iOS.
Outside of the office, many companies monitor the field force, providing working hour data and with analysis, ability to highlight hotspots (e.g. locations / clients that frequently require field support). Beyond fleet vehicles, there are heavy plant and construction vehicles to monitor for faults and security. You can do very cool stuff with vehicle tracking; see the live tube trains, and see London Undergrounds’ sensor network.
Fire drills / emergency evacuations
Finally, what if we need to leave in a hurry? Rather than counting heads and checking lists against ‘who swiped in’ records, imagine if it was practical or desirable to track actual employee locations by wristband or smartwatch. Safety marshalls would be able to know at a glance if anyone was still in a building, and in what room.
A digital carpet could even be useful for different evacuation plans.
Do we want this?
As we’re now able to capture extensive personal data, we have to ask how desirable this would be. For example, would it ever be right to monitor the alertness / fatigue of employees? Nurses report that fatigue plays a part in mistakes – could managers use wristband data to ensure health care professionals are well rested, or would such information be used against the individual?
We’d be interest to hear your thoughts.
By Sam Marshall and Wedge Black
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N.B. Links within this page are not endorsements – we haven’t tested all this technology. We suggest your IT department considers requirements and all options.