Social distancing technology is one of this year’s top emerging technology trends that is set to drive innovation in the post-COVID era.
Post-COVID society is characterized by socially-distant people, widespread germophobia, and a future that has never been more ambiguous. With uncertainty reining our lives, it is no doubt that we will continue to find ways to innovate and work around this new normal: a socially distant way of life.
Since the beginning of the outbreak, countries have been constantly introducing and re-introducing new social distancing guidelines then relaxing the restrictions and imposing them again. It is no doubt that this pandemic has been pretty challenging for governments everywhere so this brings to question: how can we go about our daily lives with little to no disruption?
Social distancing technology is the answer. A 1.5-meter world, the social distancing era, needs technology to ease the disruption that we have experienced as employees, citizens, pedestrians, and businesses.
Since its inception, technology has essentially added a layer of convenience to our lives. From the invention of the telephone to the World Wide Web, technology has helped us in so many ways. It is no doubt that innovators across the world are all working towards helping societies everywhere adapt to this new way of living through social distancing tech.
“Emerging technologies are disruptive by nature, but the competitive advantage they provide is not yet well known or proven in the market. Most will take more than five years, and some more than 10 years, to reach the Plateau of Productivity. But some technologies on the Hype Cycle will mature in the near term and technology innovation leaders must understand the opportunities for these technologies, particularly those with transformational or high impact,” said Brian Burke, research vice president at Gartner.
Understanding pedestrian behavior
Contact tracing and big data analytics have very quickly become prominent and essential to the world’s fight against COVID-19. We have seen more public-private partnerships come into fruition recently to tackle these gaps; these partnerships have made incredible progress.
This was particularly evident at the very beginning of the outbreak. Taiwan and South Korea’s responses to the outbreak were very innovative. Their use of big data analytics to put together a search engine that was solely dedicated to information on the coronavirus itself, a very strict surveillance system to ensure citizens were following the necessary guidelines and contact tracing strategies to keep infected people quarantined and away from others.
In South Korea’s case specifically, central and local governments developed a system, using data analytics and surveillance, to better track COVID cases. The country’s Ministry of Interior and Safety also developed a “self-quarantine safety protection” app which essentially ensured that individuals who were quarantining were able to keep in touch with their allocated caseworkers and that they were properly adhering to quarantine guidelines.
The app, Corona 100m, had around 1 million downloads within the first 10 days of its launch. It sends out alerts to users through the use of government data when individuals were within a 100-meter radius of an infected person.
In the case of China, thermal scanners were installed in many train stations across the country to detect high body temperatures. If a person is detected with a high fever, they would be instantly detained by health officials for testing and if the individual tested positive, then authorities would immediately alert passengers and ask to quarantine. This initiative was feasible because China’s transportation system requires individuals to show their government-issued IDs which inherently made tracking much easier.
China has always been big on surveillance and while this has raised many eyebrows outside of the country, it may have been more beneficial than anything else during the peak of the virus. This is because the country’s advanced surveillance system enabled the government to track the movements of its residents, ensuring that people adhered to social distancing guidelines and that those who may have been exposed to the virus be contacted and asked to self-quarantine.
The use of QR codes has also helped in the world’s fight against the virus. In Taiwan for instance, travelers on public transport were given a QR code in which they could scan and report COVID-19 symptoms and document their travel history online. Thus, based on the travel history of the individuals, authorities were able to identify the risk levels for each individual and were able to take action accordingly. Air travelers who were at a lower risk of infection were also sent SMS messages of health declaration border passes which would permit them to pass through immigration a lot faster, while those who were at higher risk were placed on home quarantine and tracked via their mobile phone, ensuring that they adhered to the rules and regulations during the incubation period.
If 5G were more widely available, it would have helped enterprises and governments make great strides in tracking and tracing operations as it provides the required network bandwidth to ensure optimum efficiency.
Video analytics has proven to be one of the most resourceful methods in contact tracing and maintaining or managing behavior. While using an AI system that can analyze video streams to identify situations where people may be too close to one another – such as on public transport or in an office – could be helpful, it is still a double-edged sword as it may raise privacy concerns.
It would be quite difficult to maximize the potential of CCTV in this case. Not only because of the legal restraints but also because without 5G, real-time alerts will not be achieved. In theory, it would be extremely helpful for governments to better understand traffic flows, build layouts for public areas, and enterprises to assess risks. An example of this would be the metro system in Paris where a video analytics system is being used to monitor whether or not people are wearing masks on the metro.
The market for IoT technologies was previously worth $150 billion in 2019 and it is expected to become more prominent in the near future, with forecasts estimating its market-worth to reach $243 billion by 2021. The Internet of Things (IoT) has been a key player throughout the pandemic; it has helped governments and businesses across the world to manage and contain the spread of the virus.
The more mainstream wearable devices such as Fitbits, or Apple, Huawei, and Samsung watches, are expected to soon offer some sort of contract tracking feature, with some additional health-monitoring benefits such as sleep apnea detection, blood oxygen tracking, and even arrhythmia detection.
Wearables have been widely used for quite some time now and the healthcare ecosystem has greatly benefitted from them. With the rise of COVID-19, companies involved in the market for wearable IoT began to mobilize to contain the spread of the virus, ensure social distancing, and to track the progress of those infected by the virus.
One example of a company that has been focusing on wearable social distancing tech would be Belgium-based startup Maggy. They specialize in Bluetooth-enabled rechargeable, social distancing devices which essentially warns people when they are at an unsafe distance to others to diminish the risk of COVID-19 infection transfer.
Ruben Miessen, the co-founder of Maggy, said, “Given the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic, our mission was to develop an effective and affordable social-distancing device in an incredibly short period of time.”
“Silicon Labs’ Bluetooth technology solution was a critical design element that streamlined our engineering and wireless development time. Their solution enabled us to focus on design simplicity and use cases, and ultimately accelerated our time-to-market.”
The Maggy device was created to ensure greater safety within organizations that were looking to protect their employees and visitors from being infected. This has been proven to be effective for regular office environments as well as logistical, industrial, and pharmaceutical sites. Consumers could either wear the Maggy by attaching it to a lanyard or place it in their pocket. Once they do this and they are near another person with a Maggy device, they will both be alerted by their devices. This prevents people from getting too close to one another and diminishes the event of direct and unintentional contact.
Sensors and smart infrastructure
The world we live in is evolving more than ever right now. People may get confused and break the rules as new policies are enforced and reconsidered every day. It seems that hanging signs on walls and sticking tape lines across the floor just won’t cut it. Managing guidelines can be quite challenging but there might just be a solution to this. Designing spaces and buildings whilst keeping social distancing at the very core might just be the answer.
An example of this would be social distancing mapping technology for buildings, MassMotion. This is a software that has been tried and tested by consulting engineers and architects all over the world. It helps businesses better understand pedestrian behavior down to the smallest detail. The software carries out proximity modeling tests and visualizes scenarios via computer models, enabling 3D design which can pinpoint where vital infrastructure (e.g. stairs, escalators, and elevators) could be placed to help with social distancing. Through animated visualization, new parameters can be entered into the model to create a new simulation that would essentially test out new ideas within just a few minutes.
Moving forward, it will be essential to design buildings with social distancing in mind. This is important because spatial awareness differs from one individual to the other, hence making it an inaccurate method to rely on.
Corona-proofing public transport can be quite challenging but given the sheer amount of technology available to us today, it is not impossible. In a 1.5 meter society, the entire landscape of transport as we know it is changing.
Sensor technology could play a huge role in diminishing the need for safety officers, police, or security guards to constantly warn passengers to keep a safe distance in between one another. Sensors would be able to alert the passenger or pedestrian in real-time to keep a sufficient distance and, in the long run, reduce the possibility of catching the virus whilst on public transport.
IoT-connected sensors could be a very valuable asset in our fight against COVID-19. Namely in healthcare, these sensors could be used to send out alerts that would let individuals know when they were breaching social distancing guidelines when standing in queues. This could also be useful for public transportation systems as well as manufacturing and e-commerce fulfillment environments.
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen robots being deployed to deal with so many different scenarios. We have seen high school graduations take place with graduates showing their faces on a tablet, attached to a stand on wheels, and even business meetings or other events taking place in this manner. We have also seen the hospitality industry consider taking the next step to deploy robots instead of hiring human beings to do the work to minimize human-to-human contact and interaction and hence, reduce the risk of infections.
For instance, the government of Singapore has deployed a robot dog, Spot, to enforce social distancing. The robot dog found fame online a few months ago for patrolling Singapore park. The hi-tech hound is controlled remotely and blasts out messages to ensure that pedestrians stick to physical distancing rules to limit the spread of the virus. The robot, which was developed by Boston Dynamics, has sensors that ensure that it does not collide with people.
VP of business development at Boston Dynamics, Michael Perry, said, “A few months ago, I don’t think anybody was thinking about social distancing. The Fundamental value of [Spot] is that you’re taking somebody out of a hazardous environment where they’re being asked to do something very simple and you’re putting a robot there instead.”
Before concluding, it is of the essence to consider the privacy constraints involved in the deployment of social distancing technologies.
Specifically, when it comes to contact tracing technologies, privacy can be a huge and sensitive issue for governments and businesses alike as we live in a world that is consistently striving towards enhancing digital trust and driving safety and security at the same time. It has become clear that, as of yet, contact tracing has been done at the expense of individual privacy.
During this period, contact tracing has gained a great deal of traction as governments across the world deployed these technologies to curb and contain the spread of the virus. The issue here is the sort of data that is being picked up by these apps or devices as they could reveal identities and other personal or sensitive information. Apart from privacy, this raises concerns about what would happen in the event of this data falling into the wrong hands? There is a lot to consider.
It seems that governments all over the world will have to revise or revisit their privacy laws to cater to the ‘new normal’ that we are currently living in. This time is characterized by immense uncertainty and the sooner the virus is contained, the faster we will all be able to live normally again and in turn, help the economy recover at a faster rate.
Undermining democracy and each individual’s right to their privacy is a huge concern with social distancing tech. Using some data whilst also maintaining some degree of anonymity might be useful but not quite efficient.
Google’s APIs, for instance, only exchange anonymous information which means that nobody would know who is involved in the proximity event. They generate an anonymous number but also expect users to report if they’ve been infected which would then cause the app to look at if it has been in the vicinity of that anonymous number that was picked up. This brings about another issue though. On a state level, let alone on an enterprise level, nothing can be done with that proximity data which would mean that warnings would not be able to be issued nor could any other actions such as scheduling employee testing.
When considering contact tracing on an enterprise-level specifically, as mentioned above, wearables have huge potential as it gives organizations better insights into their employees’ interactions, the number of people in each room or office, and the proximity involved in these situations. However, knowing the identity of the individual who is being tracked could lead businesses into some very complex regulatory territory. This, of course, depends on the type of organization itself and which country the organization is situated in, but considering this in the context of GDPR, this may be tricky. Some wearable devices could have the ability to track their employees outside the office (to some extent) which could be very concerning.
The reality is that none of these solutions existed a few months ago. Social distancing technologies are coming into fruition and being more widely adopted every day. Navigating the legal landscape of this may be challenging but as these technologies mature, they will be understood better, gaps will become more apparent and so will solutions.