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Startup Lets Offices Know Who Just Walked In

A Boston-based startup is helping companies track their employees around the office using wireless sensor beacons, to improve collaboration.

Smarter office buildings could fundamentally change the way we work.

In the office of the future, you may not so much walk into a room as log into it automatically. That’s what Sam Dunn, the CEO and co-founder of Boston-based startup Robin, thinks. The company is using wireless sensors to make rooms in office buildings aware of the people in them and let employees know exactly where their co-workers are.

Office mates: A device containing an iBeacon and the Robin smartphone app.

With Robin’s software, when employees walk into a room, their smartphones alert a wireless transmitter using Bluetooth LE. They can then share certain predefined information with colleagues, which might be different for, say, a conference room than for a kitchen. When someone walks into a meeting, for instance, everyone else at the table could automatically have access to the person’s name, Twitter handle, LinkedIn profile, and perhaps a shared presentation on Dropbox. The system currently works with iBeacons, wireless network sensors developed by Apple to alert iOS devices when they’re in particular locations, and a few other Bluetooth LE devices.

So far, the Robin system has been implemented in a limited number of pilot locations. News Corp, the newspaper and publishing company, uses it on its executive floor in New York for room and desk booking; a handful of co-working spaces around the country use it to keep track of general room use and availability.

Robin isn’t the only group experimenting with beacons. Burcin Becerik-Gerber, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California, has done similar work in her lab, although her primary interests have been in tracking firefighters and victims in burning buildings, and in improving energy efficiency in office buildings by identifying empty rooms (see “Innovators Under 35: Burcin Becerik-Gerber”).

Becerik-Gerber observes that there’s an obvious privacy issue with tracking people, but that people already volunteer so much information about themselves they might be okay with it.

The team at Robin recognizes the privacy issue, but Dunn doesn’t think it’s going to be a major problem. He compares having a Robin persona and entering an office building to having a Facebook profile and joining a Facebook group.

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