If this pandemic has shown us anything, it is above all one thing: how little we really know where in the air or on surfaces pathogens and harmful substances are found. We are flying blind when we move around the world. We move in danger zones without really knowing it. With radioactivity we have at least Geiger counters that constantly show us how much radioactive radiation surrounds us, but not with flu viruses and other pollutants.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could see how far from a coughing person the droplets fly? Which surfaces of self-service checkouts in supermarkets are (invisibly) dirty and need to be cleaned? Where there is currently an increased amount of pollen that can cause allergic reactions? And where and which odors and pollutants are present in this room or building? Although there are a number of simulations of how aerosols and pollutants spread in closed rooms and air, there are still few practical applications.
The success of countermeasures could also be quickly verified in this way. Has the area already been sufficiently cleaned? Fluorescent additives in disinfectants and cleaning agents could quickly indicate areas that are still contaminated. Or appropriate ventilation could indicate the micro-droplets in a room and how well the ventilation or a filter is working.
Sensors that can quickly detect, analyze, quantify and visualize odors, viruses or chemical and biological substances in the air or on surfaces are almost completely unknown or not available to the general public today. The difficulties that need to be overcome here are the exploitation of different chemical properties of the pollutants to determine which pollutant it is, the determination of the quantity, the localization, as well as the visualization. Each of these points already poses high technological demands that are not so easy to solve and will result in marketable products in the near future.
Chemical, physical and medical analysis is a scientific discipline in its own right, and the analytical equipment not only uses a wide variety of methods (spectral analysis, chromatography, mass spectrometry, etc.), but also has to be operated by experts who have to prepare samples for analysis and interpret the results. In many cases, results are not available within fractions of a second, but only after longer periods of time.
Nevertheless, for certain pollutants such applications could make a lot of sense. Imagine that such technology could be built into normal glasses as augmented reality technology and would be available to allergy sufferers, people with weakened immune systems, system-relevant employees and medical staff.
Librestream and Vuzix presented first approaches how AR goggles with thermal sensors can detect body temperature and thus possible COVID-19 infections, for example.
Just how important such technology can be is shown by the case of choir members in the US state of Washington. In Mount Vernon, an hour’s drive from Seattle, nearly 60 of the 121 singers met for regular choir practice on February 29. Although the first COVID-19 cases had already become known in Seattle itself, people in Mount Vernon thought they were still safe. And official curfews had not yet been imposed either. The two and a half hours of rehearsal – despite the distance between them, as a precaution – had devastating effects. Three weeks later, 45 members had tested positive, three were in hospital and two members had died of COVID-19. The choir members had expelled and inhaled aerosols through the singing, which over time reached and infected almost every member.
As you can see, there is a tremendous opportunity here for technology companies that want to tackle this challenge. Perhaps a prize money in a competition such as the XPrize for the Tricorder – the health measuring device inspired by Star Trek – would be the best way to provide encouragement here. How about a VisCorder?