Met de lift? Nu even niet, waarschuwt je telefoon

Foto ANP

Net als je een Mars uit de snoepeautomaat wil halen, waarschuwt een app op je smartphone dat je dat vandaag niet moet doen. En als je opstaat uit de dagelijkse vergadering, krijg je een berichtje dat je niet de lift maar de trap moet nemen. De Amerikaanse overheid doet experimenten om de gezondheid van werknemers te verbeteren. Is dit het kantoor van de toekomst?

On the seventh floor of a concrete office building in Washington, a government worker stops to contemplate a purchase from the vending machine. Then his phone vibrates. An alert on the screen suggests he pass on the Twinkies today.

This guinea pig, among a group of employees at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, may be experiencing the office of the future. The department ran an experiment this summer to see whether new technology could get workers to form better health habits.

The Health Department used wireless gizmos situated around the office that transmit signals to employees’ mobile devices as they pass by. An app running on their smartphones interprets the data and delivers advice based on where they are. Employees who get up from a conference-room table might get an alert telling them to take the long way back to their desks. Walking past a water fountain five times prompts a suggestion that it’s time to stop for a drink during the next go-around.

The government arm responsible for protecting the health of Americans is looking for ways to nag its own employees to live better. The experiment, which uses beacons about the size of a deck of playing cards that broadcast information via Bluetooth, was set up by Naganand Murty, whose formal title at the Health Department is innovator in residence. “What if you had an angel on your shoulder helping you make the right choices?” Murty says.

Companies around the world are instituting similar, although less-intrusive, measures to monitor employees’ health, and encourage wellness in and outside of the office. So-called preventative-health programs that ask staff to get physicals, seek professional consultations and take periodic tests are becoming commonplace, particularly in the U.S., where health-care costs are rising. Oil giant BP and other companies have asked workers to wear electronic bracelets that measure physical activity to get rewarded for being active — often in the form of waiving insurance premiums. The business reasoning is simple: Healthy workers cost companies less to insure.

Having to check in annually with your doctor is one thing, but getting a finger wag every time you get in the elevator may not go over well in many offices. Regardless, the Health Department is working on a more extensive version of the system that will nudge workers around the Hubert H. Humphrey building to take the stairs, Murty says. Fine-tuning when the system stages its little interventions is key to keeping it effective, he says.

“You need to keep things fresh, and you need to keep it personal,” Murty says. “Most of us go through life in zombie mode. We don’t know how many units of coffee we have had.”

Many modern smartphones are equipped to receive messages from short-range beacons, like those used at the Health Department. Their advantage is the accuracy they bring to locating people, particularly indoors where other radio technologies are less precise or don’t work at all. Typical beacons only broadcast information; they don’t collect it. However, apps running on a phone that receive a beacon signal can be programmed to send the data to a server over the Internet.

The iPhone refers to the notifications as iBeacons, and Apple uses them to give shoppers recommendations about what to do as they walk around one of the company’s stores. Retailers have been early adopters of the technology, seeing it as a way to keep customers’ attention, push relevant coupons and appear cutting-edge.

Gilbarco Veeder-Root, the world’s largest maker of gas pumps, is working on a system that recognizes drivers when they pull into the station, and lets them pay and select the type of fuel they want through an app, says Kevin Hunter, chief operating officer at Gimbal, a Qualcomm spinoff that makes beacons and their companion software. It’s designed for drivers who’d like to minimize their exposure to inclement weather, although they’ll still need to brave the cold to put the nozzle in their tank. Meanwhile, the Chicago Transport Authority is expanding a trial using beacons for pushing information to riders’ phones.

Murty’s program uses the data to create a scoring system and leaderboard showing who is the healthiest in the office. “We wanted to use it for something far more useful than selling you stuff,” he says.

While Apple’s touting of iBeacons raised expectations for use of the technology, it hasn’t had much of an impact so far. Beyond some stores, it’s been largely confined to events such as the Tribeca Film Festival and at sports venues. ABI Research estimates that there’ll be about 60 million of the beacons deployed by 2019. Compared with the more than a billion smartphones that will be sold this year, that’s hardly blanket coverage. Gimbal’s Hunter says the research doesn’t take into account rapid advances made this year.

While the Health Department trial gives a glimpse at one possible scenario for the office of the future, workers shouldn’t expect to find beacon messages following them around the office anytime soon. For now, you’re safe to sneak out and get that afternoon chocolate fix from the vending machine.

    • Ian King