COVID-19 & Tech: Wearables

On Fridays I plan to spotlight an emerging technology that has been pushed by the COVID-19 pandemic into more mainstream use, sometimes in ways that may seem surreal.


A bevy of wearables are being developed to help curb the effects of the disease. Here are a few examples and their intended uses:

To support social distancing

Collage of various safety devices that help enforce social distancing.

In many places, social distancing guidelines must be followed or COVID-19 will spread more quickly. Companies are releasing safety devices, usually worn around the wrist like a bracelet, that alert the wearer when another person comes within six feet, usually with a vibration or buzzing.


To conduct contract tracing in the workplace

Some of the devices have more robust features and come with a whole suite for an organization to deploy among their staff. They not only buzz employees to support social distancing, they maintain a record of those interactions. They also enable employees to self-report when symptoms develop. This allows HR to quickly and efficiently set up any necessary quarantines.

Furthermore, these wearables connect to special software, a contract tracing dashboard, that allows employers to locate and support those at risk and protect the whole workforce.


To emit UVC light to destroy pathogens

Here’s a wearable that fights back. A collar is being developed that emits UVC light, destroying the virus around a person before they can breathe it in.


To continuously measure vital signs to predict and track disease

Researchers at Northwestern University and Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago are developing a flexible skin-mounted device that sits at one’s throat to continuously measure vital signs to catch the disease and monitor its course. These are being specifically designed for frontline healthcare workers, the elderly, and other higher risk individuals.


All of the above are new devices… but what about the wearables people might already own, such as smartwatches?

It looks likely that smartwatches will be making a big come-back.

I wrote about persistent recognition systems last year for my ‘Henry’s High-Tech Highlights’ series. The pairing of that technology with wearables is poised to have a powerful impact on our personal and public health. When you have sensors on you that measure you all the time – and they are connected to artificial intelligence and Big Data, there’s an opportunity to tie decision-making to your own individual metrics and this results in personalized medicine. It means we will have an all new and far more effective way to predict and treat health issues early.

A wearable like a smartwatch allows for constant tracking at the personalized level to determine the actual baselines for individuals, rather than having to compare to an average or standard. Take heart rate, for example. A new study out of Stanford University is working on employing wearable devices to help curb the spread of the viral COVID-19. Noticing that elevated heartrates have been measured from those about to contract the COVID-19 disease, the Stanford team began focusing on ways to harness smartwatches and other wearables to figure out how to detect the disease before symptoms even occur (or never occur, as is the case with those who are asymptomatic).

They’ve begun training their algorithms to notice the unusual, but tell-tale, signatures of heart rate and other factors – all with baselines unique to each individual – that mean the immune system is acting up in that person’s specific instance. The algorithm will know its specifically tracked person is about to get sick, even if they are asymptomatic and wouldn’t otherwise show signs. The smartwatch knows, however, and can give alerts to stay home that day.

I always thought digital watches were a cool invention. I even thought in the future we’d have the Dick Tracy-style ones with the video screens to talk to one another, but who knew watches would grow up one day to save humanity from pandemics?


Further reading:

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