Connecting the Digital World and Your Workplace

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Chair of the Month

Natalie Grasso Cockrell
Natalie Grasso Cockrell
Natalie is a Workplace Consultant at Herman Miller and the former Editor of Work Design Magazine. She’s currently based in Pittsburgh.

Six questions for Tom Zampini, the CEO of Beco, a streamlined cloud service that works together with a beacon powered entirely by existing light fixtures.

Image courtesy of Beco.

Beco has created the world’s first battery-free, light-harvesting beacon that’s powered entirely by a space’s existing light fixtures. That’s pretty nifty on its own. But according to CEO Tom Zampini, the beacon is only “part of the solution”. The company has now launched a location analytics platform that will tell you how people are using your space by leveraging the beacons and your employees’ mobile devices.

They’ve also teamed up with Amazon Echo to add a voice activation component: eventually, you’ll be able to solicit real time Beco building data instantly from Alexa. Beco is already running a demo in their Cambridge, Mass. offices:

Pretty cool, right? For more, we shot Zampini a few questions over email.

Tell us about the product — what does Beco do?

Most fundamentally, Beco connects the digital and the physical world. We started by creating the world’s first battery-free, light-harvesting beacon… but making a better beacon was only part of the solution. There are plenty of devices on the market — but that isn’t our primary focus. At its core, Beco is a streamlined cloud service that is designed from the ground up to work in tandem with the hardware. This integrated hardware/software system enables location-based actions in real-time, as well as historical analytics. We bring buildings online.

What can companies do with the data that Beco collects?

The opportunities for architectural data are limitless — specific applications arise from each use case. Most generally, we are allowing buildings to become aware of their occupants and begin to interact. The Beco system creates two main categories of data: real time, and long term.

Consider work environments: you could imagine, on the one hand, real time conference room booking, based on where people are and what rooms are free. A team could seamlessly assemble in the nearest room, once they are all present on the same floor. On the other hand, you could observe macro trends — how employees move through an office, where they collaborate, which parts of the building are most active at which times, and use that information to re-design the office for greater efficiency or quality of life.

How will the voice activation/Alexa integration piece work?

We got a kick out of playing with the Amazon Echo, but more importantly we realized that at the most basic level, Alexa has the same ambition as Beco: to create natural, effortless interaction with physical space. The Echo uses voice, we use physical location. With a full integration, Alexa will be able to commit any “queries” that are possible with our API. Put simply: Alexa will answer questions about people and places. In fact, the demo is already up and running in our offices! You can search which conference rooms are available right now, or where a specific person is in the building.

Is the data you collect anonymous or is it attached to particular employees?

Privacy, anonymity, and security are tremendously important to our company. Beco users are able to choose the level of anonymization they are comfortable with — they are given the option to share their location, and to enable specific systems, such as personnel searching or room booking. When we started Beco, we were well aware of the privacy implications, and it is something we constantly bear in mind as we build the system and create new uses for it. This begins with the information itself — we don’t collect data unless the user wants us to, and all of the data we do collect is encrypted.

Why use light bulbs? And does Beco connect to existing fixtures, or do customers have to add something else?

Beco uses existing light fixtures. This is the basic premise of our hardware, and it is the key to the simplicity of installation and maintenance. Look up right now — chances are you’re peering at a light. The infrastructure is ubiquitous in buildings, and in many ways lumens are an abundant and underused resource.

Think of a more familiar metaphor: the power of Airbnb is that it re-activates and taps into an unused resource — all of the empty rooms throughout our cities — and turns them into a valuable product. In a similar way, Beco capitalizes on the light that fills our rooms, and activates it to create valuable data.

It also means that installation is easy (just clip on the beacon) and that there is virtually no maintenance: no batteries to change, and no wires to plug or run. With a simple integration, the building is online.

In the years to come, architecture will most likely transition to digital light bulbs. This is still a long way off, however, and it will be an expensive and iterative process. We have developed an actionable solution that works today, utilizing an untapped resource.

Can you share an example and photos of a company who has successfully implemented Beco? What have they learned since implementing it?

Our team has integrated the Beco system into a number of businesses, contexts, and environments, from big box retail to research spaces to offices. We believe that building analytics will be particularly powerful in future-facing work environments. Coworking is transforming how we create, work, collaborate, design our office spaces and even lease buildings.

We are just now at the brink of a revolution: [buildings are becoming] an active participant in working and creating. You could imagine spaces that reorganize based on activity, opening up new opportunities for unexpected and productive collaboration, or rooms that optimize scheduling based on proximity of all meeting participants.

To test these possibilities and begin to reveal the actual dynamics of co-working, we deployed an integration with one of the leading spaces in Cambridge, Mass. A full Beco integration is offering a glimpse of this cutting edge ecosystem — a vibrant community of startups and large businesses that demonstrate the future of work. We’ve already found powerful insights: daily trends, meetings, collaboration, and unexpected encounters. And people love to dwell in kitchens! From this data, we can begin to develop new technologies, applications, and spatial principles to support dynamic innovation in practice.

Integrating a streamlined hardware / software solution for spatial analytics offers the power of architectural data. Across a wide variety of scales and contexts — particularly workplaces — we are only just beginning to explore how this will transform interactions with and in physical space. Real world data. Simple.

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