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COLUMN

#03

Towards the world of "After COVID-19"

In this emergency column (as of May 20, 2020), I would like to consider how COVID-19, which is now raging around the world, was caused and what we, as electronics companies, can do about it.

 

COVID-19 has been reported in the news media every day, so I am sure everyone is aware of it. Although some countries have passed their peak and are now on a downward trend, the number of infected people worldwide is increasing at a rate of tens of thousands of people every day, and there is still no end in sight.

In recent years, there has never been an event that has had such a significant impact on the health and social life of the entire world at the same time. The damage to the real economy is severe, with the IMF forecasting negative growth of 3% year on year and the possibility of the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930's, and the situation is sure to get more confusing. It would be no exaggeration to say that we are in a "state of war" with an invisible enemy (virus). I feel that it is time for the wisdom of mankind to be put to the test.

 

Now let's take a look at why COVID-19 has spread so rapidly across the globe and why we have been unable to stop the spread. There are three major factors that can be attributed to this.

1) Strength of infection: Although it is a contact infection and droplet infection, it is thought to have an infectious power (basic reproduction number) about twice that of the influenza virus. And when you look at some of the cases of people being infected, even after only a short period of contact with an infected person, it's a force to be reckoned with.

2) Existence of asymptomatic pathogen carriers: Since some infected people do not show any symptoms, they spread the virus unknowingly around them like a Trojan horse, and before they know it, a pandemic has been triggered.

3) Rapid progression of symptoms: The speed of infection is so rapid that by the time the patient is brought to the hospital, it is already too late.

 

What kind of technology can we use to cope with such COVID-19 expansion factors?

As for the "1) Strength of infection", we can contribute with "non-contact". No matter how strong the infectivity of COVID-19 is, it will not be transmitted if the transmission route is broken. Considering the fact that people are infected by touching doorknobs, switches, touch panels, furniture, etc. with saliva that is splashed along with the coughs and sneezes of infected people, and rubbing their eyes and nose with those hands, the probability of infection can be greatly reduced by simply not touching things. In other words, in addition to not touching things that an unspecified number of people are touching, we believe it is important to reduce the number of things that wouldn't work if they weren't touching them = utilizing contactless interfaces.

For example, you can install a motion sensor on a door to make it an automatic door, change the touch panel of a ticket vending machine in a bank or public transportation system from a capacitive type to a non-contact interface, or change the switch from a mechanical type to a ToF sensor using infrared or ultrasonic waves. Asahi Kasei Microdevices (AKM) is also developing the AK975x series of infrared sensors, which are ideal for human-detection applications, and could contribute to the development of non-contact interfaces such as these.
* AKM's Human Sensing Products

 

The magnetic sensors in our S-cube product range are also non-contact sensors, but unlike infrared sensors, they are resistant to dirt and water. For example, when AK09970 is mounted in the switch section, user can be turning on/off without touches using "Magnetic ring", and we can do it easily and inexpensively realized.

In addition, the application such as the COVID-19 infection status map has already made a big impact in China and South Korea as a tool to avoid contact with infected people (although there are concerns about invasion of privacy). Avoiding contact with people, even if they are not infected, means maintaining social distance, which is effective in preventing infection. In general, it is recommended to keep a distance of about 2 meters between people, but the way to keep your distance is left to your own senses, and in many cases, you may unconsciously close the distance. It may be useful to have a system that alerts you to such a situation. We think that it is relatively simple to realize a system in which each person has a BLE beacon whose transmission power is suppressed to about 2m, and it detects that the distance between them is close to 2m or less and notifies a smartphone etc. The small and low-consumption BLE transmitter IC of AKM may also be utilized.  
* AKM's Bluetooth® Low Energy (BLE) transmitter ICs

 

Furthermore, the idea of "Stay at Home" is becoming a common understanding around the world as a fundamental measure to prevent infection by avoiding contact with people. Encouraging people to work from home is part of this, but even if only business people in large metropolitan areas don't use public transportation, they may be making a significant contribution to preventing the spread of infection. As I write this column from my home, I realize the benefits of working remotely not only in terms of infection prevention but also in terms of effective use of time to reduce commuting.

However, the challenges of long-term telecommuting are slowly becoming apparent. For example, the subtle atmosphere of an online conference (miscommunication due to the subtle time lag in communication and difficulty in listening, difficulty for the presenter due to not being able to see or respond to facial expressions, confusion over how to place the eye when the camera is on, anxiety over the camera's appearance, consideration for the sound of life, etc.) was not something we needed to worry about in a face-to-face conference. In addition, I feel that the remote work system has made it impossible for employees to communicate casually with each other on a daily basis. In some cases, you may find yourself in a situation where you don't see or talk to anyone for a day and just work in solitude, and you hear that negative emotions such as emptiness and depression amplify and lead to a decrease in motivation. In other words, it is assumed that there will be an increase in the demand to reflect the advantages of "offline" in future remote work.

I think that the above issues can be improved to some extent by improving communication quality (e.g., promoting the spread of 5G and Wifi-6), improving the capabilities of PC microphones and earphone microphones, installing noise canceling functions as a standard feature, and developing an under-screen camera, which is a little more advanced technology. In the future, I think that meetings and communication in a pseudo-space using VR/AR headsets will increase in order to obtain a "pseudo-meeting experience even at home. S-cube products will be able to help you in that case. (See the Column #01).

 

For "2) Existence of asymptomatic pathogen carriers" and "3) the rapid progression of symptoms", the aspect of "health monitoring" may contribute to prevention. As I mentioned in my previous column, more and more smartwatches are now equipped with vital data such as body temperature, heart rate, electrocardiogram, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and oxygen saturation. Although the causal relationship between COVID-19 symptoms and vital status is not yet clearly understood, it is possible to detect asymptomatic pathogen carriers at an early stage and to detect signs of worsening symptoms by analyzing multiple vital data plus human movement states (e.g., standing, walking, running, sleeping).

If this is the case, various sensors such as accelerometers, angular velocity sensors, and infrared sensors will play an active role in the future. Our S-cube products may also be used for attached and removed detection and wake-up of products such as smartwatches and smart glasses for taking vital data.

 

We have already reached a stage where it is not realistic to eliminate the threat of COVID-19 from the world, and it may become a virus that coexists with humanity like influenza. I feel that it is becoming a big turning point of the social structure though it is semi-compulsory when I see the point that the spread of remote work is advancing rapidly. There is no doubt that things that were previously taken for granted offline (which we thought was enough) will be going online at an accelerated rate.

The age of contactless interfaces and health monitoring devices for each person as proposed above may soon come, and we should not aim to return to the pre-COVID-19 lifestyle, but rather, we should all work together to make the world and society a better place through this pandemic.

[Notes]

* Appellations, company names and product names on this page are trademarks or registered trademarks of respective companies.

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