Humans are social creatures, and social distancing -- staying apart, staying out of groups, and staying at home -- is completely unnatural to us! This is even harder for younger folks -- those who feel invincible, get easily bored, and have a penchant for ignoring the rules. But in these times, rebelling against social distancing mandates can result in any one of us catching COVID-19 or unwittingly becoming a community transmitter, putting others at great risk. We created MyBubble to be the game that makes social distancing fun through a combination of technology, behavioural economics (gamification), and positivity all rolled into one!
What it does
Each week, players of MyBubble get a new challenge to keep them mindful and engaged, such as signing up for an online course, going outside for personal exercise, or scheduling daily video chats with those most isolated. They get three social-distancing “bubbles” and are challenged to survive the week without bursting these bubbles. Bursting is detected using smartphone functions like:
- Bluetooth LE beacons, for detecting one-to-one bubble breaches (the 6ft/2m rule)
- Bluetooth LE and the Nearby API, for warning when the user may be at risk of breaking a mandated group-size rule;
- GPS, for using geofencing to remind users not to leave home unless absolutely necessary and to wash their hands when they return!
MyBubble provides users the opportunity to also redeem themselves, should they falter, by learning more about COVID-19, contacting a loved one, sharing a positive message via social media, or being friendly and kind toward others while maintaining a safe distance. If they're able to make it to the end of the week with all bubbles in tact, they can share how they fulfilled their social distancing duty with MyBubble badges, post their scores to the community leaderboard, and get rewarded with Suds--MyBubble’s point system.
MyBubble also contributes to much needed economic activity by allowing users to use Suds for discounts and credits with local businesses and national sponsors.
Ultimately, the combination of the behavioural economic principles, combined with the technology to help measure and remind players of the proper behaviours -- socially peer-reinforced through the leaderboards and positivity messaging -- which can support better compliance (vs. the "broad societal expectations" that are the current enforcement mechanism). These, along with the fun in MyBubble, creates stickiness, triggers network effects (increasing uptake among peers), and can habituate an otherwise difficult lifestyle change.
How we built it
MyBubble uses Bluetooth LE Advertising and beacon technology to detect other nearby phones and, thus, the people using them. This enables two key features of MyBubble: group detection and peer-to-peer proximity measurement.
For group detection, regular Bluetooth LE Advertising packets are scanned from nearby devices to determine generally how many devices are nearby.
Peer-to-peer proximity measurements can be done using beacon-style Bluetooth LE Advertising packets wherein additional data is transmitted which aids device-to-device distance measurements. Our initial validation experiments of this approach were done using an Altbeacon open-source Android app and Cypress PSoC 4 development board. We were able to confirm that the Altbeacon protocol can be used to detect when two devices are less than 6 feet (or 2 meters) apart. We also researched the viability of turning the phone into both a scanner of beacons and a beacon itself. This would enable the phone to broadcast its present to other MyBubble-equipped devices while it also scans for them.
The links include our GitHub content and videos demonstrating the technology's capabilities in determining proximity and other functions mentioned.
Further detail on proving out the technical concepts of beacon proximity measurement and sensing devices can be found in this video
- Determining how to balance user compliance with adoption: We put in a lot of thinking and anecdotal user validation to determine people's social distancing habits and how to best measure/incentivize/nudge users
- Exploring Bluetooth's capabilities/boundaries: All other Bluetooth packages are built around particular packages more geared toward mobile app development, so a react native app would work for this. Time and effort was put into determining just how accurate Bluetooth beacon technology currently is and can be.
- Navigating the different iOS and Android Bluetooth implementations and APIs: Each OS tunes advertising and scanning differently, and provides app developers different levels of control over the Bluetooth subsystem. Further, these two OSes enforce different restrictions on especially Bluetooth beacon applications depending on whether the app is running in the foreground or background.
- Working across 3 very different time zones!
Accomplishments that we're proud of
- Came up with an intriguing concept (validation): We shared the idea with multiple people also in stay-in-place or self-isolation contexts, and they really liked the idea! They thought it's a great way to keep on track with the right practices in social distancing, and they appreciated that it was some form of recognition for their efforts in social distancing. Many -- teens and older -- really wanted to download it!
- The technology: We could proved that in optimal settings, we can the existing capabilities of smartphones to measure, detect, and nudge the 3 key social distancing behaviours. Getting a Bluetooth beacon and beacon scanning native Android app up-and-running very quickly (see the videos). The Android app was already available as open source, but the beacon required some bit-level hacking to get the right data advertised. It pays to keep old dev boards lying around the garage!
- International collaboration: Our team is eight hours apart end-to-end, but we managed to work together thanks to a lot of Google Hangouts, an active Slack workstream, and a lot of patience! We plan to continue advancing MyBubble after this hackathon.
- Drumming up interest: we have been approached by parties from 3 different countries looking to adapt this program and thinking for their local social distancing and public health needs
- Had fun! And every day we get more encouragement for the concept!
What we learned
- Focus first: We had a lot of ideas about features and ways the app could work, thought out many scenarios of how to "game the system," and what ways to prevent community transmission. Eventually we were able to focus on the core problem, and on a core market--younger people who may be less compliant than most people with social distancing rules.
- Build a multidisciplinary team: Our venn diagram had slight overlaps, but we found that our varied skill sets really complemented each other!
- Find true believers and make them into partners: Through sharing our story and our vision, we were able to find potential technology and channel partners from across the spectrum -- including government, the tech community, health agencies, and the community.
- Pushed our boundaries: Each of us learned something new, whether it was a new program, pushing the bounds of our current understanding, or new ways of working!
What's next for MyBubble
- Put it all together, and polish!: put all the primary components (UI, backend, etc.) into a cohesive product, including exploring the gamification elements of storytelling and quests.
- Refine the Bluetooth technology: investigate improvements in distance measurement accuracy when each phone is operating as a both beacon and scanner; investigate ideas for distance calculations based solely on Bluetooth Advertising packets when the peer device is not operating as a beacon (e.g. is not using our app), such as leveraging the new Contact Detection Service just announced by Apple and Google.
- Sign partner-sponsors: continue to pursue our leads with government and private partners (e-tailers, and for city-versions -- local businesses to help get them support); also find potential partners for challenges (e.g., online classes that can be linked into challenges, content/video, etc.)
- Marketing: Once it's ready for launch, we'd like to connect with our target audience by leveraging social media and influencers who can help share encouragement to keep up their duty in social distancing, and show how they're using it to keep themselves honest, too.
- Expand the team: We need as much help as we get to build the app, improve the UI/UX, and refine the technology.
Randall Baran-Chong (Canada): Randall is a global healthcare strategist with a keen interest in technology and human behaviour. He likes to combine the 3 to help connect the healthcare ecosystem, improve health outcomes, and empower people to own their health.
Chris White (USA): Chris is an audio/software/embedded systems technologist currently doing R&D on next-generation Bluetooth audio. Motivated by his Christian faith, he found this hackathon in his search for ways to apply his skills and resources to love others in the time of COVID-19.
And we’re always looking for new people who want to make MyBubble a reality!