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These smart wearables will remind you to keep the distance

From neck braces to smartwatches, innovative devices are being developed around the world to alert users on proximity and keep them safe

The Covid Radius bracelet gives a warning signal to maintain distance.
The Covid Radius bracelet gives a warning signal to maintain distance.

When the Apple Watch was launched more than five years ago, it kick-started a revolution that saw users across the world embracing wearable smartwatches extensively for the first time. The smartwatch, now in its fifth iteration, has become one of the best-selling wearable devices ever, with over 30 million units sold in 2019 alone.

Another revolution now seems to be in the offing—of devices that warn you if you are not keeping a safe distance from others .

The Covid Radius bracelet
The Covid Radius bracelet

A study released by Harvard researchers in April warned that a pandemic-stricken world might require intermittent social distancing measures till at least 2022. Many countries, including India, are now relaxing lockdown measures. And as people step out of homes, the need for devices to keep a check on physical distance is all too evident.

Smartphone apps are seen as one solution but it’s the physical devices that may be more effective. Several innovations are in trial.

Belgium has recorded more than 8,000 deaths due to covid-19 and Antwerp port is now testing a digital bracelet called the Romware Covid Radius, developed by technology company Rombit. Built on an existing safety bracelet, the Romware ONE, this digital bracelet, which looks almost like a smartwatch, alerts workers when they are not maintaining the physical distance mandated by the World Health Organization. The wearer gets a vibrating alert if they are too close to another person wearing the same bracelet.

According to a recent Bloomberg report, American automaker Ford has also been testing buzzing wristband devices to keep employees safe and apart at its factories.

The sChoker is in the prototype stage
The sChoker is in the prototype stage

In India, Architecture Discipline, a Delhi-based multidisciplinary design studio, is in the early stages of developing a neck-brace device inspired by the choker. The sChoker comes with a similar warning system and can be worn outside the workplace too. “Human beings are social in nature but given what’s happening now, we are all suspicious of each other. Things are moving towards a direction where being anti-social has become the norm. However, we should be able to meet, interact in a safe environment," says Akshat Bhatt, principal architect, Architecture Discipline.

The smart social distancing neck brace, in the early prototype design stage, uses infrared sensors and sends the user an alert to maintain “distance" whenever they are too close to an animate object. These alerts could be relayed through LED colour cues (red or green), small vibrations or an audio alert. The alert system could be built in or integrated into a separate indicating device.

“You wear it as an embellishment but it has a function. Unlike smart bands, we wanted to create an inexpensive device for stand-alone application, which meant that we could do something with a mesh network. You don’t need to know what’s going on 20km from you. What’s more important is that you know what’s happening in your immediate surroundings," says Bhatt. Mesh (communication) networks use devices that are not linked toa mobile network or exchanging sensitive information.

The current prototype uses forged carbon fibre and a rapid prototyping method through a 3D printing machine. Other form factors include a bracelet and an armband. Future versions could use velvet, plastic, beads, latex, leather, even metals such as silver, gold or platinum, depending on demand.

At present, the studio is also working with brass, copper and zinc. “We are working on materials that are commonly occurring but not expensive. The idea is to create a usable object that is also accessible to people at large. But we don’t want it to become traditional jewellery because then the value attached to it diminishes," says Bhatt.

“While we are still prototyping, it could be ready as early as a couple of weeks to a couple of months," he says, adding that the device won’t cost more than a “couple of hundred rupees". “Not more than that. They can all be rapid prototypes," he adds.

Estimote’s workplace safety wearables can be tracked through a common dashboard.
Estimote’s workplace safety wearables can be tracked through a common dashboard.

Until scientists find a vaccine against covid-19, the only way to stem spread is social distancing. And one reason physical devices may be more popular than, say, social distancing apps is because they can function on a local network and restrict the sharing and distribution of sensitive user data, such as location history. For example, Estimote, a US-based technology startup, builds small wireless sensors and beacons that function on technologies such as Bluetooth. Its workplace safety wearables can be tracked through a common contact tracing dashboard and come with LED status indicators, plus a panic button for the employee wearing it.

During this pandemic, some aspects of technology, like video calling, have brought people closer in new ways. So perhaps it’s only fitting that technology should also help them stay at a safe distance from each other.

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