Technology has played a pivotal role in our ability to cope with the global coronavirus fallout. As COVID-19 sweeps through nations, quickly making established ways of working, studying, socializing, and conducting business impractical or even impossible, people turned to technological innovation for alternatives. 

Here we look at three key areas that have been brought to the forefront during the pandemic but are likely to stay with us for the long-term. 

Immersive Technology/ XR post-pandemic

An IT engineer and programmer testing software and working with Virtual Reality headset on.

Alan Smithson, CEO of MetaVRse, says that XR is specifically pivotal because of its potential to replicate the physical dynamics of collaboration in a virtual environment, enabling you to be fully present and engaged with others as you would in real life. 

As most of us struggle with the challenge of adapting to this ‘new normal’ where much of the world’s population finds itself unable to safely hold face-to-face meetings, Smithson explains that XR Collaboration tools are emerging as viable alternatives — not to replace current video conferencing, but to augment them through spatial understanding. “By sharing fully immersive spaces with others, we begin to bridge the physical gap between us – opening up a whole new world of communication possibilities. With XR conferencing, people may not be able to see your face, but they can certainly see your body language, and that is really powerful.” 

This power, however, is only properly leveraged where creators are mindful of the unique properties of immersive technology, rather than trying to retrofit it to existing tools and procedures. 

“The biggest question we should ask is can we or even should we try and replicate the presence of live events via digital means (be it digital video conferencing, AR and VR)? If we merely try to ‘copy and paste’ one experience into the other, we are doomed to fail,” says Galit Ariel, founder and Creative Director of WondARlands Spatial Innovation Lab. 

Ariel says that in her view, simply having embodied avatars standing in a virtual conference room and watching a virtual slide show does not make the infinite possibilities virtual platforms have to offer. 

Furthermore, the move to digital platforms brings opportunities to “control the stage” in ways that are unavailable to speakers and presenters in real life. While pre-tested or pre-recorded talks and events can be potentially more polished, they also lack the magic and serendipity of a physical setting, interaction and immersion. That is a much harder challenge in some ways, Ariel says, as that content then needs to compete for the individual’s attention span with all the great digital content that is already available online, and the things that are happenings in their separate realities.

“When I see online and virtual panels and presentations using the same method of content delivery, I feel it is a miss. [Although] I understand that most event organizers had to find quick solutions. Going forward, they will need to make smarter and more creative choices about what content is valuable and meaningful in a digital context, and what digital tools make sense. We also need to remember that people are quickly becoming ‘Zoomed out’ and dealing with digital fatigue.  I hope, and I am certain, we will see more creative and experimental ways to deliver content via digital means.”

Delivering new digital content through AR and VR will also depend on network innovation and optimization. Globally, plans to deploy 5G are mixed. While the U.S. is still moving forward with its plans to deploy 5G on the same timeline pre-COVID-19, other countries are facing delays in spectrum auctions, investment, and supply chains. In order to create seamless XR experiences in and outside of our homes, there needs to be significant strides in 5G infrastructure and investment into education about different applications and uses for this technology. 

Smart city technology for tracking and security

a security camera on the exterior of a building

In order to tackle the unprecedented challenges of this global pandemic, it is vital that local, state and federal governments are able to leverage the vast amounts of data already in their systems to make better-informed decisions that help them flatten the curve and take action in real-time to mitigate outcomes and maximize limited resources. 

“Data is key toward effectively tracking and managing a government’s pandemic response,” explains Amr Salem, CEO of smart city technology company Quantela, whose AI-powered recommendation engine deploys predictive analysis to forecast future capacity requirements for traffic, crime, weather, disaster and emergency response. The company currently has over 95 live deployments, including installations in Albuquerque, NM., Erie, PA., and Las Vegas, NV. 

Quantela recently launched a platform called CoVER (Coronavirus Emergency Response Platform) which enables authorities to input all their data from across their field of operations, including medical resource tracking, testing kits and results, outbreak locations, quarantine locations and duration, and critical asset locations, into one accessible database.

The platform – which can be tailored to the needs of each locality and deployed within as few as three days – incorporates any data source that influences their time-critical operational decision-making can be fed into a cloud-based system that gives them increased insight and control over these fast-moving situations. 

The dashboard visualizes complex data sets and is able to reliably predict where the virus will be, allowing leaders to reallocate resources accordingly to prevent shortages. Users can drill down from macro-level data (across states, counties, etc.) all the way down to an analysis of city sectors and even individual patients to ascertain how to best deploy resources to manage and contain outbursts and manage infection clusters, taking actions such as sending real-time notifications to health workers in a particular area. 

Quantela’s digital urban services technology also includes a Citizen App which can be installed on their phones and allows individuals to perform self-assessments and self-report. Citizens can also use the app to receive information about the current situation in their area, including official government updates and notifications, “red zone” alerts, health advice, and the location of their nearest testing and treatment facilities. Field responders, meanwhile, can use CoVER to record their temperature and other vital statistics. Going forward, it may be possible to leverage such capabilities to detect and stop further outbreaks at a much earlier stage by monitoring how positive patients are recovering, and who is traveling. 

“Cities will be able to predict future scenarios based on current spreading patterns, understand the impact on critical medical assets, speed up the allocation of patients to hospitals with available capacity, track quarantined patients, and distribute assets where it’s needed the most,” Salem concludes.

Hygiene innovation

Wiping Down And Sanitizing Headphones

Perhaps the most noticeable shift in our routine brought on by the spread of COVID-19 has been in personal hygiene. We’ve been made forcibly aware that the very act of touching a surface can contaminate it for extended periods of time. And while frequent hand washing mitigates contagion to some degree, our devices and wearables are much more difficult to effectively disinfect on a regular basis.

See also

people looking at a display of IBM's quantum computer at CeBOT 2018

This is a problem that Amy Hedrick, CEO and Co-Founder of California-based smart tech hygiene company Cleanbox Technology had been working on for years, however.

With a background in media production and storytelling, Amy was an early adopter of immersive technology. In 2016, she foresaw the need in the nascent industry for a solution that would allow users to safely and hygienically share headsets without risking contagion transfer.

Cleanbox went on to patent a technology that uses UVC light in an LED to decontaminate hard-to-clean products worn on the face or head. With a focus on high-risk contagion transfer points; its core products were designed for Augmented & Virtual Reality Head Mounted Devices (HMDs). Cleanbox also includes a hydrophobic coating for the soft materials of the headset, to keep contagions at the surface rather than seeping into the electronics. Cleanbox products have been proven to safely eliminate 99.99+ percent of viruses, bacteria, and fungi within seconds.

“We actually started with the most difficult form factor first,” says Hedrick, “Virtual and augmented reality headsets are made up of many different materials and delicate electronics that have multiple surfaces that are hard to reach. They are much more difficult to clean than say cell phones”.

UVC is a wavelength of light that does not occur naturally in the atmosphere, so viruses do not have a resistance to it. Unlike UVA and UVB rays (sunlight & tanning bed lights), which are not generally used as disinfectants, UVC is safe for decontaminating materials including fabrics, plastics, and acrylic. The use of UVC in an LED instead of traditional mercury tubes or bulbs has the advantages of generating no heat or harmful toxins, as well as keeping the product environmentally-friendly, Hedrick explains.

With the global shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) – in particular, N95 respirators (N95s) – and the re-use of masks without proper decontamination placing users at increased risk due to viral load build-up, Cleanbox quickly pivoted and designed a retrofit for cleaning masks, allowing healthcare workers and first responders to safely disinfect their N95s. Cleanbox’s CX1 with retrofits have been donated to institutions such as Children’s National and Northwestern University Medical Center. In parallel, Cleanbox developed CleanDefense, a machine due to launch this summer which can decontaminate up to 100 masks per hour.