It’s a device that emits a high-pitched beep, buzzes and lights up if your coworker steps too close.
While some introverts would have bought this device before the pandemic to stave off chatty colleagues near the coffee machine, ZeroKey designed the product with a more important purpose — helping employees physically distance to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus.
The Calgary tech company’s “Safe Space” device looks like a small plastic badge that can be worn on a wrist or clipped to a shirt pocket or belt.
“Our products, in a nutshell, localize or figure out where things are in 3D space and our big claim to fame is we do it very precisely, more precisely than anyone else in the world,” said Matt Lowe, co-founder and CEO of ZeroKey.
The company says its location-tracking technology passively monitors the distance between each device and is accurate down to 1.5 millimetres. The distance on devices can be set — so if, say, science determines three metres apart is actually safer that two, that can be tweaked.
Lowe says the company came from humble beginnings — he and a co-founder, working out of a room in his house. The company has grown from two to 30 employees and has more openings it’s looking to fill.
Inspired by sci-fi
Their inspiration comes, as so many technological innovations have, from sci-fi.
Lowe recalls watching Minority Report, and being transfixed with the gesture-based user interface Tom Cruise’s character operates.
“Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had an interface that was more in tune with how humans operate naturally with their hands. So if you could just walk up to a new piece of technology … and just immediately be proficient,” he said.
But applying that tech to the COVID-19 era wasn’t something the company had anticipated.
Lowe said some of the company’s clients in the manufacturing industry approached ZeroKey with a request.
“They came to us and said, ‘hey … we have the data where people are, can you build some sort of system so that we can do contact tracing and we can let people know if they’re closer than two metres?’ And we said, ‘absolutely … that’s easier than what we normally do,'” he said.
The product doesn’t just notify workers when they get too close to each other, it tracks those who are close contacts — to easily notify those who need to quarantine in the event of a positive case. Privacy was considered though, Lowe said, as the products can be connected to just ID numbers so the data is anonymized and locations aren’t tracked.
“Good contact tracing is how you prevent additional spread. And so by being able to offer this to companies so that they can do it automatically … allows you to really start to protect your staff.”
The products are ideal for large-scale industrial environments like meat-processing plants, Lowe said.
Meat-processing plants have been the site of some of the worst outbreaks of the pandemic, including one near Calgary which at one point saw the largest outbreak in North America.
Lowe said the company has seen huge demand, and is now shipping tens of thousands of the devices to eight countries. That number is soon expected to increase to the hundreds of thousands. The units sell for $60 each, with a $2.50 subscription fee for the contact tracing service.
But Lowe said he’s not hoping for long-term success on this product.
“I’d much rather get back to business as usual,” he said.
“So we’re squarely in the camp cheering for the vaccine to get here sooner than later.”