IoT 5 mins read

Disillusioned with smart social distancing apps?

Smart social distancing apps – already top of Gartner Hype Cycle – need to stay away from the Trough of Disillusionment. Here’s how.

Bart Schouw Bart Schouw

The outbreak of Covid-19 at the beginning of this year gave rise to the frantic development of a whole new range of devices for smart social distancing (SSD).

They got so much attention that they were spotted by Gartner and placed on a Hype Cycle. SSD solutions have a lot of momentum and movement through the Hype Cycle has been swift. In fact, so swift that they are already on the top of the curve and ready to jump straight into the “Trough of Disillusionment.”

SSD solutions are primarily UWB- (ultra-wideband) or Bluetooth-enabled IoT devices. The devices can monitor the distances between each other and – if any device gets within a certain range – alert users. They also send that data to the back office for further processing. In this way, social distancing can be actively enforced, and information can be collected to run contact-chain reports. This could help your organization to quickly assess the impact if someone is tested positive with Covid-19.

These more intelligent solutions have some very interesting advantages over some of the simpler mobile apps entering the market. And they are getting traction as companies look to prove to authorities that they are adhering to the new regulations. PPE-like precautionary measures are one way, but how do you prove that they are adhered to? By implementing an IoT-based SSD solution this proof can be acquired and given.

SSD solutions sound simple and straightforward, so what could go so wrong that they would hit the Trough of Disillusionment?

As one of the early SSD solution providers, I can offer some insight. Software AG came to market with a prototype of an IOT-based SSD solution in June 2020, so was well ahead of the curve. We got our fair share of experience and I’d like to share with you some of the pitfalls that might disillusion your organization.

There are too many choices

There are a wide range of SSD device vendors, from cheap ones with price tags as low as 20 euro (and less) to expensive ones above and beyond 400 euro each. Needless to say, this means there is a wide range of quality and functionality. So you need to define exactly what you want. Do you want one with a replaceable battery? Does it need to withstand certain conditions (IP rating)? Do you want users to be able to switch the device off or should it be always on?

Simple questions, but the capabilities relate directly to the use case are you trying to fulfill.

The use case looks deceptively simple

We found out that there are a wide variety of cases where the hardware capabilities are causally related. For example, do you hand out the devices permanently to the user? Or do you want to hand them out and take them in when entering/leaving the premises? Either way requires completely different on-boarding and off-boarding procedures, but also has an impact on device requirements.

In the latter case, you had better make sure that your devices can be switched off, otherwise the simple matter of storage becomes a pain. In one use case, the always-on devices were tossed into a basket upon leaving the office – they kept triggering each other causing a cacophony of alerts.

If you want to use devices in less restricted areas, like exhibitions or events, there is a different challenge. It requires some kind of identification of the visitor where easy on- and off-boarding is even more crucial. In cases where the devices are rotated among visitors, they must be disinfected after every use – which can be time-consuming.

The biggest hurdle I’ve heard is that a device that needs to be connected continuously, in order to send collision alerts, must be reliable or have “store and forward” functionality. Also, if it needs to be connected continuously, the area you want to control must be completely covered by controllers, which can be cumbersome if the area is vast, like a large factory. However, store and forward devices are in their infancy and have some drawbacks as the download time of events might be slow. Meaning that synchronization at peak times (like end of shifts) might be choppy.

So here are some do’s and don’ts we found through trial and error:

  1. Be very clear on your target audience. Are they known/employees or are they guests? If known, simplify the setup by handing out devices permanently, and only replace if broken. This will decrease the complexity of on- and off-boarding. If guests, make sure that manual processes are described on how disinfection of the devices is handled and make sure that devices can be switched off if not in use.
  2. Is the area you want to monitor gated? Or not? If it is gated, is complete coverage via controllers an option? If not, make sure that the devices have reliable store and forward capabilities and can offload data in a decent fashion.
  3. Be clear on the objectives and don’t over-engineer. Don’t expect to offload everything to the solution; SSD is relatively immature right now and if you overload it you will end up with a brittle solution. As long as you keep it simple (KISS) – understanding the true functionality needed and the limitations of the technology – and give it time to mature, you will get the outcome you desire.

This is how you keep out of the Trough of Disillusionment.

Stay safe…