Six feet. Two meters. Do you know exactly how far that is? Do you feel comfortable roaming the halls of the workplace or attending a training conference without knowing how closely you are interacting with another person? How might we navigate around and among each other while staying six feet (or two meters) apart?
The first solution to this pandemic-induced social distancing dilemma that came to my mind was beacon technology. Beacons leverage proximity technology to detect when something (or someone holding a device) is nearby, and then trigger some sort of action to deliver information. How would that work with two people? Which of us would alert the other? Who manages the beacon? I must be on the wrong track here.
What about mobile technology? Apps such as Work | Space are specifically designed to help us maintain a safe distance from our colleagues as we return to the workplace. Work | Space and similar apps use Bluetooth to sense how close we get to another person. We get alerted when too close, and are responsible for monitoring (and limiting) those alerts. Problem is, everyone would need to be using the same app for this to work well.
ULTRA WIDEBAND VS. BLUETOOTH
Next option? I happened on an article in an arts magazine about a social distancing usecase for a technology called the Personal Space Guardian from Engage by Cell.
The Personal Space Guardian is a small device worn on a lanyard that can be programmed to alert the wearer of the proximity of another Personal Space Guardian nearby. So if you are wearing the device and come within a specific set distance of another one of these devices, the device lights up and vibrates (very noticeably, I might add).
The device costs around $300, fits in your palm, and is about the size of a deck of cards. The alert distance can be preset, along with timing delays to minimize alerts if you just pass someone quickly for one or two seconds in the hallway.
The Personal Space Guardian is being used at museums, historical sites, university campuses, and private businesses to alert wearers when they get too close to someone else. The device has a battery life of approximately 15 hours, and takes about three hours to fully recharge on the charging dock. It operates on ultra-wideband (UWB)—radio-based communication technology that enables fast, accurate transmission of data within short ranges. UWB determines exact location by measuring how long it takes radio pulses to transmit between two devices. It is considered a stable and secure channel, with little chance of interference from other signals.
This technology is not new. It has been used across industries to alert factory workers to hazardous areas and off-limits spaces. I even have seen similar technology available to parents who want to be alerted when their children get too close to a dangerous area (think staircase or stovetop). It has been used to open doors and share content across devices.
Kinexon also is leveraging UWB technology to provide contact warning and contact tracing solutions.
Its SafeZone product (a wristband) can measure the distance and duration of contact between employees. If you stay far enough apart, the face of the wristband flashes green. If you get too close to one another for a brief moment, the face flashes a warning signal. And if you stay too close for too long, you get an audio warning, as well.
RightCrowd is another big player in this space, with a focus on turning existing security card systems into social distancing solutions. A badge holder on a lanyard holds the Bluetooth 4.2 technology behind this tech. According to the company’s site, “When the wearable detects a colleague is within six feet of another colleague, it prompts the users with a flashing visual beacon to try to increase their distance.”
The social distance badge holder is compact and light, and boasts a battery life of up to 80 hours of continuous use. It can be charged via USB or charging station.
All of these technologies are driven by software applications where you can specify distances, groupings, sets of groupings, and zones.
MAKE SOME NOISE!
I have seen each of these in use, and I have to say that the larger (and noisier) Personal Space Guardian is my preference. I’d rather take on the weight and bulk to get a more forceful alert. There are also options for device rentals, which makes this an attractive solution for single events. I also trust UWB more than Bluetooth here.
An interesting note: The iPhone 11 includes a UWB chip—the U1. According to the Apple Website, “The new Apple-designed U1 chip uses ultra-wideband technology for spatial awareness —allowing iPhone 11 Pro to precisely locate other U1-equipped Apple devices. It’s like adding another sense to iPhone.”
It all makes sense now that I realize UWB is what powers iBeacon technology. I guess I was on the right track after all!
Engage by Cell
The UWB Alliance
Phylise Banner is a learning experience designer with more than 25 years of vision, action, and leadership experience in transformational learning and development approaches. A pioneer in online learning, she is an Adobe Education Leader, Certified Learning Environment Architect, STC Fellow, performance storyteller, avid angler, aviation enthusiast, and currently training to be a private pilot.