Project Summary

Project Boundary is an exploration of indoor proximity sensing beacons that could potentially create a more aware and intelligent workplace. The project envisions the use of low energy Bluetooth sensors to deliver well-timed and contextually relevant triggers delivered to the user in order to encourage the adoption of healthy behaviors within the workplace. It hopes to cover new ground in the field of corporate wellness and gamify the interactions of the user with their physical surroundings.


Project Overview

Project Boundary was conceptualized by the IDEA Lab’s Innovator in Residence – Naganand Murty and Nayan Jain – a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow, as an technology demonstration in radically redefining workplace wellness. This was designed as an entry for the SmartAmerica Challenge, hosted at the White House.

Today’s corporate wellness platforms tend to center largely around health portals, and wellness services to enable the employees (users) to adopt and maintain activities that are beneficial to their health. However, many of these programs have not been able to effectively engage employees, and corporate wellness often does not tend to register high on an employee’s radar, when they think about their own health and wellness in the workplace.

Our project is an exploration of the following design intent – how might we better engage users within the bounds of where they are, and what they do over the course of a regular day at work, and get them to do just a little bit more towards benefiting their health.

In order to fulfill this intent, we intend to explore a novel approach to corporate wellness, using proximity sensing to gamify the workplace. We hope to demonstrate how an everyday physical space might be transformed to become something more relevant to addressing the wellness needs of users, by engaging them where they are, as they go about their daily work. We want to re-envision the workplace (in conjunction with the user’s mobile phone) as an intelligent ecosystem that enables the user to maintain and adopt healthy behaviors. We hope to do two things primarily:

Help the user better understand how they navigate through specific physical indoor environments, by providing context-relevant triggers and timely feedback to them
Gamify how the user might navigate the indoor environment by creating a system that might encourage competition, exploration, interpersonal interaction etc., all in the context of workplace wellness

If it helps to think about this project in the context of a behavior change framework, we hope to improve the quality and contextual relevance of triggers (messages delivered at the right time and the right place) to users, who might be already at a certain minimum threshold of ability (they are already up and moving), and motivation (they might be motivated to compete against themselves or against a social peer group).


Potential use cases

Promoting Staircase Usage

Promoting Hydration


An overview of proximity sensors and how they work

boundary 2

Beacons only transmit a simple address – they do not sense anything

Beacons are exactly what they sound like – simple one-way emitters of a signal that only an app on your phone with the right permissions and settings can listen in to. If it helps to form an analogy, think of beacons as indoor GPS (stationary) satellites – they are only broadcasting the same message – (a simple address) over and over.

You need to download and install an app on your phone to be able to work with beacons

The app on your phone is programmed to listen for the specific addresses being broadcast by the beacons. Only an app that is configured with these address ids can do anything useful with the beacons.

Big Brother and implications for privacy 

Are beacons big brother technology at work? No. not quite – and here’s why. The whole idea of using beacons is that it is totally opt-in. And not the fine-print opt in that most user agreements will push on you, but a conscious opt-in that the user does – after being informed that the app will send push notifications from time to time.

Further, this is no different from using a GPS in your car, or Navigation Maps. Of course you can argue that those applications in themselves might be a tad big brother. In that case, just don’t use a beacon-enabled app, or turn off your bluetooth. Beacons in of themselves do not do anything without you having the app on your phone – and your app will only behave in ways that you permit it to.

The larger concern has to do with the app sharing identifiable location data about a user. We certainly do not want our employers to spy on us! The intent of using proximity beacons is to help us become more aware of the health choices that we face everyday – which largely go unnoticed, because we as human beings are creatures of habit.

Our solution therefore is to build apps which are tied to the phone – and do not ask for any user identification. Further – any formal implementation of a wellness app using proximity sensors and collecting PII will have to use the same IT security that is expected of other health applications.


Project Boundary Phase #1 - Technology demonstration

What was implemented

In the first phase of Project Boundary – we set up beacons at certain locations on the seventh floor of Humphrey building – and created a simple test application that implemented a game – where users earned points for passing by and interacting with beacons.

Some beacons were also configured to enable the app to send the user a push notification when they passed by the beacon. For instance – beacons near the elevator would trigger a push notification to prompt users to consider taking the stairs.

The game was called Break! and a screenshot of the same is shown here.

Screenshot 2014-11-07 18.52.40

What were the objectives of this phase?

The goal of this demonstration was to simply showcase a “what if” scenario – and was intended to seed the idea amongst the innovation community – and encourage others to design formal systems to study the impact of ibeacons and other proximity sensors in workplace wellness. This demonstration was also intended to iron out technical challenges and thus inform the next phase – which will be a research study.

Who were the users?

Users of the app were IDEA Lab co-workers (about 7 of us in total) who downloaded the app, and helped debug the app UI experience over a period of 2 weeks – providing feedback on latency issues with the messages, and better understand how beacons worked with the phone.

For purposes of the demonstration – we were focused on technology and not on wellness. No health data was collected or analyzed. No personal or identifiable info was sought or stored. Users were anonymized by game handles.

What were some key takeaways?

We concluded that proximity beacons could indeed be considered as a potential means to gamify wellness in the workplace.

However, no conclusions can be made as to the actual potential for causing behavior change – since this was not the intent of the demonstration, nor was it studied.

Further, the use cases we explored were only chosen as representative examples, and we would like to encourage health researchers to set up studies to test specific hypotheses. One thing to note however, is that the delivery of messages needs to be personalized, and meaningful for users to consider them seriously, and avoid “notification fatigue” – which is commonly observed with other apps.

Another key challenge is to minimize battery drain on the cellphone – that can result from scanning for beacons – however there are tradeoffs here, given that for timing accuracy, background mode scanning needs to be quite frequent.

Where do we go from here?

After having demonstrated that the technology can be suitably deployed for this particular setting – we are working on a formal research project proposal with workplace wellness experts and behavior scientists that will look to design a specific intervention – (most likely around staircase use) and will seek to understand the impact of “nearables” on workplace wellness metrics.

The project is planned for early 2015 – stay tuned for updates.


Background Information

Established in 2012, the Innovator-in-Residence Program brings new ideas and expertise into HHS programs through collaboration between the Department of Health and Human Services and private sector not-for-profit organizations. To date, the HHS IDEA Lab has partnered with the West Health Institute to take on the issue of health care cost and the Healthcare Information and Management System Society to address the issue of patient matching.