Estimote launches wearables for workplace-level contact tracing for COVID-19

Bluetooth location beacon startup Estimote has adapted its technological expertise to develop a new product designed specifically at curbing the spread of COVID-19. The company created a new range of wearable devices that co-founder Steve Cheney believes can enhance workplace safety for those who have to be colocated at a physical workplace even while social distancing and physical isolation measures are in place.

The devices, called simply the “Proof of Health” wearables, aim to provide contact tracing – in other words, monitoring the potential spread of the coronavirus from person-to-person – at the level of a local workplace facility. The intention is to give employers a way to hopefully maintain a pulse on any possible transmission among their workforces and provide them with the ability to hopefully curtail any local spread before it becomes an outsized risk.

The hardware includes passive GPS location-tracking, as well as proximity sensors powered by Bluetooth and ultra-wide band radio connectivity, a rechargeable battery, and built-in LTE. It also includes a manual control to change a wearer’s health status, recording states like certified health, symptomatic, and verified infected. When a user updates their state to indicate possible or verified infection, that updates others they’ve been in contact with based on proximity and location-data history. This information is also stored in a health dashboard that provides detailed logs of possible contacts for centralized management. That’s designed for internal use within an organization for now, but Cheney tells me he’s working now to see if there might be a way to collaborate with WHO or other external health organizations to potentially leverage the information for tracing across enterprises and populations, too.

These are intended to come in a number of different form factors: the pebble-like version that exists today, which can be clipped to a lanyard for wearing and displaying around a person’s neck; a wrist-worn version with an integrated adjustable strap; and a card format that’s more compact for carrying and could work alongside traditional security badges often used for facility access control. The pebble-like design is already in production and 2,000 will be deployed now, with a plan to ramp production for as many as 10,000 more in the near future using the company’s Poland-based manufacturing resources.

Estimote has been building programmable sensor tech for enterprises for nearly a decade and has worked with large global companies, including Apple and Amazon . Cheney tells me that he quickly recognized the need for the application of this technology to the unique problems presented by the pandemic, but Estimote was already 18 months into developing it for other uses, including in hospitality industries for employee safety/panic button deployment.

“This stack has been in full production for 18 months,” he said via message. “We can program all wearables remotely (they’re LTE connected). Say a factory deploys this – we write an app to the wearable remotely. This is programmable IoT.

“Who knew the virus would require proof of health vis-a-vis location diagnostics tech,” he added.

Many have proposed technology-based solutions for contact tracing, including leveraging existing data gathered by smartphones and consumer applications to chart transmission. But those efforts also have considerable privacy implications, and require use of a smartphone – something that Cheney says isn’t really viable for accurate workplace tracking in high-traffic environments. By creating a dedicated wearable, Cheney says that Estimote can help employers avoid doing something “invasive” with their workforce, since it’s instead tied to a fit-for-purpose device with data shared only with their employers, and it’s in a form factor they can remove and have some control over. Mobile devices also can’t do nearly as fine-grained tracking with indoor environments as dedicated hardware can manage, he says.

And contact tracing at this hyperlocal level won’t necessarily just provide employers with early warning signs for curbing the spread earlier and more thoroughly than they would otherwise. In fact, larger-scale contact tracing fed by sensor data could inform new and improved strategies for COVID-19 response.

“Typically, contact tracing relies on the memory of individuals, or some high-level assumptions (for example, the shift someone worked),” said Brianna Vechhio-Pagán of John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab via a statement. “New technologies can now track interactions within a transmissible, or ~6-foot range, thus reducing the error introduced by other methods. By combining very dense contact tracing data from Bluetooth and UWB signals with information about infection status and symptoms, we may discover new and improved ways to keep patients and staff safe.”

With the ultimate duration of measures like physical distancing essentially up-in-the-air, and some predictions indicating they’ll continue for many months, even if they vary in terms of severity, solutions like Estimote’s could become essential to keeping essential services and businesses operating while also doing the utmost to protect the health and safety of the workers incurring those risks. More far-reaching measures might be needed, too, including general-public-connected, contact-tracing programs, and efforts like this one should help inform the design and development of those.

This Week in Apps: Apple launches a COVID-19 app, the outbreak’s impact on social and video apps and more

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry saw a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, we’re continuing our special coverage of how the COVID-19 outbreak is impacting apps and the wider mobile app industry as more COVID-19 apps appear — including one from Apple built in partnership with the CDC, among others. We also take a look at the gains made by social and video apps in recent weeks as people struggle to stay connected while stuck at home in quarantine. In other headlines, we dig into Instagram’s co-watching feature, the Google for Games conference news, Apple’s latest releases and updates, Epic Games expansion into publishing and more.

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Social video apps are exploding due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Volvo’s Polestar begins production of the all-electric Polestar 2 in China

Polestar has started production of its all-electric Polestar 2 vehicle at a plant in China amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended the automotive industry and triggered a wave of factory closures throughout the world.

The start of Polestar 2 production is a milestone for Volvo Car Group’s standalone electric performance brand  — and not just because it began in the midst of global upheaval caused by COVID-19, a disease that stems from the coronavirus. It’s also the first all-electric car under a brand that was relaunched just three years ago with a new mission.

Polestar was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. In 2017, the company was recast as an electric performance brand aimed at producing exciting and fun-to-drive electric vehicles — a niche that Tesla was the first to fill and has dominated ever since. Polestar is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China. Volvo was acquired by Geely in 2010.

COVID-19 has affected how Polestar and its parent company operate. Factory closures began in China, where the disease first swept through the population. Now Chinese factories are reopening as the epicenter of COVID-19 moves to Europe and North America. Most automakers have suspended production in Europe and North America.

Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath said the company started production under these challenging circumstances with a strong focus on the health and safety of its workers. He added that the Luqiao, China factory is an example of how Polestar has leveraged the expertise of its parent companies.

Extra precautions have been taken because of the outbreak, including frequent disinfecting of work spaces and requiring workers to wear masks and undergo regular temperature screenings, according to the company. Polestar has said that none of its workers in China tested positive for COVID-19 as a result of its efforts.

COVID-19 has also affected Polestar’s timeline. Polestar will only sell its vehicles online and will offer customers subscriptions to the vehicle. It previously revealed plans to open “Polestar Spaces,” a showroom where customers can interact with the product and schedule test drives. These spaces will be standalone facilities and not within existing Volvo retailer showrooms. Polestar had planned to have 60 of these spaces open by 2020, including in Oslo, Los Angeles and Shanghai.

COVID-19 has delayed the opening of the showrooms. The company will have some pop-up stores opening as soon as that situation improves, so people can go see the cars and learn more while the permanent showrooms are still under construction, TechCrunch has learned.

It’s not clear just how many Polestar 2 vehicles will be produced; Polestar has told TechCrunch that it is in the “tens of thousands” of cars per calendar year. Those numbers will also depend on demand for the Polestar 2 and other models that are built in the same factory.

Polestar 2 EV

Image Credits: Screenshot/Polestar

Polestar also isn’t providing the exact number of reservations until it begins deliveries, which are supposed to start this summer in Europe, followed by China and North America. It was confirmed to TechCrunch that reservations are in the “five digits.”

The Polestar 2, which was first revealed in February 2019, has been positioned by the company to go up against Tesla Model 3. (The company’s first vehicle, the Polestar 1, is a plug-in hybrid with two electrical motors powered by three 34-kilowatt-hour battery packs and a turbo and supercharged gas inline 4 up front.)

But it will likely face off against other competitors launching new EVs in 2020 and 2021, including Volkswagen, GM, Ford and startups Lucid Motors and even adventure-focused Rivian.

Polestar is hoping customers are attracted to the tech and the performance of the fastback, which produces 408 horsepower, 487 pound feet of torque and has a 78 kWh battery pack that delivers an estimated range of 292 miles under Europe’s WLTP.

The Polestar 2’s infotainment system will be powered by Android OS and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store. This shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

Google launches the next Android 11 developer preview

Google today announced the second developer preview of Android 11. Like the first preview, this one, too, is only meant for developers and isn’t available as an over the air update. Instead, developers have to manually download and flash their supported devices, which are currently limited to the Pixel 2, 3, 3a or 4.

Unsurprisingly, this second release doesn’t feature any groundbreaking new features and mostly continues the work done with Preview 1. For the most part, these are new APIs and other developer features. You can expect to hear more about user-facing updates in some of the next releases.

“It’s still an early build, but you can start to see how the OS is enabling new experiences in this release, from seamless 5G connectivity to wrapping your UI around the latest screens, to a smarter keyboard and faster messaging experience,” writes Dave Burke, Google’s VP of Engineering, in today’s announcement.

New features in the second preview include a 5G state API to see if a user is currently on a 5G network, so that developers can then activate experiences that necessitate a 5G network, for example. There is also now better support for foldable devices with a new API that can read data from a hinge angle sensor so that apps can, as the name implies, adapt to the angle of the hinge.  There are also new APIs for screening robocalls and support for variable refresh rates and more. For developers who use neural networks in their apps, Android 11 will include a new “hard swish-op” function that will enable faster and more accurate training for on-device models.

While most of these updates focus on developers, one feature users will likely notice is ‘resume on boot.’ When an Android 11 device reboots after an overnight over-the-air update, it can now immediately access Credential Encrypted storage and start receiving messages right away. In current versions, the phone would mostly lie dormant until you logged in with your credentials.

 

Do phones need to fold?

As Samsung (re)unveiled its clamshell folding phone last week, I kept seeing the same question pop up amongst my social circles: why?

I was wondering the same thing myself, to be honest. I’m not sure even Samsung knows; they’d win me over by the end, but only somewhat. The halfway-folded, laptop-style “Flex Mode” allows you to place the phone on a table for hands-free video calling. That’s pretty neat, I guess. But… is that it?

The best answer to “why?” I’ve come up with so far isn’t a very satisfying one: Because they can (maybe). And because they sort of need to do something.

Let’s time-travel back to the early 2000s. Phones were weird, varied and no manufacturers really knew what was going to work. We had basic flip phones and Nokia’s indestructible bricks, but we also had phones that swiveled, slid and included chunky physical keyboards that seemed absolutely crucial. The Sidekick! LG Chocolate! BlackBerry Pearl! Most were pretty bad by today’s standards, but it was at least easy to tell one model from the next.

(Photo by Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images)

Then came the iPhone in 2007; a rectangular glass slab defined less by physical buttons and switches and more by the software that powered it. The device itself, a silhouette. There was hesitation to this formula, initially; the first Android phones shipped with swiveling keyboards, trackballs and various sliding pads. As iPhone sales grew, everyone else’s buttons, sliders and keyboards were boiled away as designers emulated the iPhone’s form factor. The best answer, it seemed, was a simple one.

Twelve years later, everything has become the same. Phones have become… boring. When everyone is trying to build a better rectangle, the battle becomes one of hardware specs. Which one has the fastest CPU? The best camera?