Ever since the coronavirus has hit us, the one phrase that has probably been spoken the most is ‘social distancing’. It is the only tool that we have in our hands that can help us keep this virus ‘at a distance’. And ever since countries have decided to relax the nation-wide lockdowns, its importance has increased. As we return to our places of work, restaurants, malls, etc. we must keep in mind that the virus is still at large, and we need to follow certain rules to ensure that it doesn’t catch us. In fact, a number of startups have been working on technologies for social distancing. From wearable devices that measure the distance to wall-mounted cameras that monitor space-use, these social distancing technologies will soon become part of the ‘new’ normal.

Companies are already investing in remote work. For instance, Google will be giving each of its employees “an allowance of $1,000 to expense necessary home equipment and office furniture”. Twitter took it a step further and told its employees that they could work from home forever!

However, since not all work can be done from home, companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, are slowly opening up, with less than 50 percent occupancy. They have put in place various health and safety measures including deep cleaning, temperature checks, and availability of masks and sanitizers. Besides these, there are various technologies for social distancing that need to be introduced to ensure that people can safely return to work.

The focus of the upcoming social distancing technologies is maintaining a distance of six feet between two people based on the directions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While some firms are trying to redesign their offices by putting up plastic shields around work-stations, there are work-places where physical barriers are not possible. So, for them, wearable technologies are being developed those alert employees when they get too close. 

For instance, a robotics company, Tharsus, has developed a wearable Fitbit-style device called Bump. It creates a ‘virtual bubble’ of two meters around the person and alerts them with light and sound if it senses another user close by. Bump is currently being tested in a number of work-settings like food manufacturing, logistics, and construction. Similarly, another company, ProGlove, has adapted its barcode scanning technologies for social distancing. The scanner is attached to the wearer’s glove and uses Bluetooth to measure the distance.

Besides these wearable technologies, an Amsterdam-based startup, Smart Eagle, has created a ‘distance sensor’ for office spaces. It can easily be installed on ceilings and can ensure spaces never become over-crowded by monitoring the number of people and the distance between them. Amazon has developed ‘machine learning software’ in its security cameras to make sure workers stay six-feet apart while in the warehouse. Another startup, Outsight, has designed one of the first 3-D semantic cameras for keeping an eye on the flow of people, whether they are wearing masks and maintaining distance. It can be used to get spatial intelligence insights for airports and shopping malls as well. 

In addition to work-places, there is a need to ensure social distancing in public spaces too. And while employers can be provided these wearable technologies for social distancing, not every individual has access to them. Thus, an AI-security startup, Staqu, allows organizations to use its video analytics platform, Jarvis, to monitor security, safety, and hygiene using thermal screening and face recognition via CCTVs. It can help monitor crowds in malls and markets. The company has already tied up with 15 partners, including Microsoft to provide real-time alerts. DineOut has incorporated this across 200 restaurants. Ankit Mehrotra, CEO of DineOut, said, “In any dining experience, the kitchen is the black-box. Through Staqu, we will screen the live feed of the kitchens to our customers to build confidence among them to dine out”. 

Park+, on the other hand, aids contactless shopping and parking. Launched by ex-Paytm VP Amit Lakhotia, Park+ app will allow mall personnel to check-in and check-out customers to manage footfall. Customers will be able to register with a store and receive real-time updates of the number of customers in every store, and thus, book slots for a safe shopping experience. It has so far teamed up with malls in Delhi, Mumbai, Bhopal, and Coimbatore. After scanning a QR-code, the mall will be able to track the location of the customer. The app will also provide directions to customers to reduce the time spent in the mall, and allow digital payments, curbing the use of cash or credit cards.

While such technologies for social distancing will undoubtedly enable businesses to restart their work, they are not devoid of limitations. Firstly, they are not yet readily available. Secondly, they function on a basic level of keeping people ‘six-feet apart’. They do not, yet, measure how long people are in contact; or what kind of surroundings they are in; or even if they are wearing masks or not.

Although infection rates can be brought down just by maintaining the distance between people, it isn’t enough on its own. Covid-19 infection is also related to the duration for which one is exposed to the virus; the longer one stays in a potentially contaminated environment, the higher is the risk of getting sick. Similarly, the kind of air-patterns that surround us, i.e. the direction of airflow, can increase the chances of infection.

Moreover, there are always questions regarding users’ privacy. Although most of these technologies for social distancing use only Bluetooth to identify similar devices being used close-by, they must ensure that any data shared with employers or third parties, is not tied to personal information. For instance, some wearable technologies share data only among themselves and delete once the infection window of 14 days is over; while others prevent employers from accessing employee contact history. It is important to create an environment where people feel safe and not like they are being watched or under a threat. At the end of the day, social distancing technologies are important for businesses to function post-COVID-19 and for the safety of everyone in general.

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