Pandemic Tech in a Covid-19 World

Technology to keep us healthy will stick around

A couple of weeks ago, I revealed a new theme we’re calling “pandemic tech” as part of the CCS Insight Predictions Week 2020. I used the term to refer to technology that will ride the Covid-19 wave, focusing on people’s well-being and moving into new frontiers of health tracking. Around the world, people are increasingly focused on staying well. Technology that can monitor people’s health, and help improve and sustain it, will be extremely important as the world seeks to slow the spread of Covid-19.

During Predictions Week, we shared a few specific observations about the future direction of technology for health and well-being. We predicted that skin temperature sensors will become a common feature on wearables by 2022, as they may provide a leading indicator of coronavirus infection and open up an array of other health diagnostics. They’ll join existing sensors such as those that produce electrocardiograms and measure blood oxygen levels. In time, we may also see sensors spreading to other devices like smartphones as people want to track their health with more care than ever before.

The question of health isn’t limited to what devices can track; it also covers the idea of devices themselves being safe, and more specifically, clean. For that reason, we’re predicting that in 2021, hygiene and easy cleaning will feature heavily in the design and marketing of personal tech products. As the health crisis continues, manufacturers of smartphones, wearables, earbuds and other devices will turn the need to limit the spread of infection into a major selling point. We think that new products will draw on the expertise of medical-grade equipment makers to promote features like antibacterial coatings and wipe-clean surfaces.

However, personal tech products are one thing; public solutions are an entirely separate category. Cast your mind back to the pre-Covid-19 world (if you can remember it), when many of us were used to interacting with a multitude of touchscreen interfaces every day. Whether ordering food from a restaurant, paying for parking, or buying train tickets, touch screens have become a near-ubiquitous means of control for technology in public spaces. In a world where hygiene is so important, and people want to minimize contact with shared surfaces, this presents a challenge.

One development that caught my eye recently comes from Ultraleap. The company has announced TouchFree, which allows the seamless retrofitting of new technology to touch screens to enable control with the use of gestures. Through a combination of a mounted camera module and Ultraleap’s hand-tracking software, users can point at menu options and gesture to select them, rather than needing to actually touch the surface. It runs invisibly on top of existing interfaces without any need for redesign, making it easy to deploy. It’s a slick system, relatively inexpensive to deploy and solves one of the hygiene challenges of equipment used in public spaces.

It will be fascinating to see what other solutions emerge. One technology that surely has more of a role to play in the Covid-19 world is voice control. So far the technology has mostly flourished in personal devices and in the smart home, but not in the public arena. In part, this could be because of problems with voice recognition and data privacy worries, as well as the public’s reluctance to speak to inanimate objects like kiosks.

However, if the pandemic has shown us one thing, it’s how quickly attitudes to certain technologies can change when required. The increase in people using webcams on video calls — something that was often considered awkward in the past — shows that when behaviours need to change, they can do so very quickly.

For this reason, I don’t think pandemic tech will be a flash in the pan. The trends we see in technology over the next couple of years could continue to shape our interaction with devices for a longer period. They’ll improve the design of personal and public products to make them smarter, cleaner and more efficient.

Even in a few years’ time, once Covid-19 is (hopefully) well behind us, I expect health and well-being to still be at the top of the agenda in many spheres of technology, with the changes we’re seeing now potentially bringing long-term benefits to us all. For companies focused on this space, there’s a clear opportunity to innovate, and to play an important role in a healthier society.

Here’s a taster of my Predictions Week presentation. If you’d like to see more, please drop us a line.