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The Hot New Covid Tech Is Wearable and Constantly Tracks You

In Rochester, Mich., Oakland University is preparing to hand out wearable devices to students that log skin temperature once a minute — or more than 1,400 times per day — in the hopes of pinpointing early signs of the coronavirus.

In Plano, Texas, employees at the headquarters of Rent-A-Center recently started wearing proximity detectors that log their close contacts with one another and can be used to alert them to possible virus exposure.

And in Knoxville, students on the University of Tennessee football team tuck proximity trackers under their shoulder pads during games — allowing the team’s medical director to trace which players may have spent more than 15 minutes near a teammate or an opposing player.

The powerful new surveillance systems, wearable devices that continuously monitor users, are the latest high-tech gadgets to emerge in the battle to hinder the coronavirus. Some sports leagues, factories and nursing homes have already deployed them. Resorts are rushing to adopt them. A few schools are preparing to try them. And the conference industry is eyeing them as a potential tool to help reopen convention centers.

“Everyone is in the early stages of this,” said Laura Becker, a research manager focusing on employee experience at the International Data Corporation, a market research firm. “If it works, the market could be huge because everyone wants to get back to some sense of normalcy.”

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Credit…BioIntelliSense, Inc.

Companies and industry analysts say the wearable trackers fill an important gap in pandemic safety. Many employers and colleges have adopted virus screening tools like symptom-checking apps and temperature-scanning cameras. But they are not designed to catch the estimated 40 percent of people with Covid-19 infections who may never develop symptoms like fevers.

Some offices have also adopted smartphone virus-tracing apps that detect users’ proximity. But the new wearable trackers serve a different audience: workplaces like factories where workers cannot bring their phones, or sports teams whose athletes spend time close together.

This spring, when coronavirus infections began to spike, many professional football and basketball teams in the United States were already using sports performance monitoring technology from Kinexon, a company in Munich whose wearable sensors track data like an athlete’s speed and distance. The company quickly adapted its devices for the pandemic, introducing SafeZone, a system that logs close contacts between players or coaches and emits a warning light if they get within six feet. The National Football League began requiring players, coaches and staff to wear the trackers in September.

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Credit…Brandon Wade/Associated Press

The data has helped trace the contacts of about 140 N.F.L. players and personnel who have tested positive since September, including an outbreak among the Tennessee Titans, said Dr. Thom Mayer, the medical director of the N.F.L. Players Association. The system is particularly helpful in ruling out people who spent less than 15 minutes near infected colleagues, he added.

College football teams in the Southeastern Conference also use Kinexon trackers. Dr. Chris Klenck, the head team physician at the University of Tennessee, said the proximity data helped teams understand when the athletes spent more than 15 minutes close together. They discovered it was rarely on the field during games, but often on the sideline.

“We’re able to tabulate that data, and from that information we can help identify people who are close contacts to someone who’s positive,” Dr. Klenck said.

Civil rights and privacy experts warn that the spread of such wearable continuous-monitoring devices could lead to new forms of surveillance that outlast the pandemic — ushering into the real world the same kind of extensive tracking that companies like Facebook and Google have instituted online. They also caution that some wearable sensors could enable employers, colleges or law enforcement agencies to reconstruct people’s locations or social networks, chilling their ability to meet and speak freely. And they say these data-mining risks could disproportionately affect certain workers or students, like undocumented immigrants or political activists.

“It’s chilling that these invasive and unproven devices could become a condition for keeping our jobs, attending school or taking part in public life,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a nonprofit in Manhattan. “Even worse, there’s nothing to stop police or ICE from requiring schools and employers to hand over this data.”

Executives at Kinexon and other companies that market the wearable trackers said in recent interviews that they had thought deeply about the novel data-mining risks and had taken steps to mitigate them.

Devices from Microshare, a workplace analytics company that makes proximity detection sensors, use Bluetooth technology to detect and log people wearing the trackers who come into close contact with one another for more than 10 or 15 minutes. But the system does not continuously monitor users’ locations, said Ron Rock, the chief executive of Microshare. And it uses ID codes, not employees’ real names, to log close contacts.

Mr. Rock added that the system was designed for human resources managers or security officials at client companies to use to identify and alert employees who spent time near an infected person, not to map workers’ social connections.

GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical giant, recently began working with Microshare to develop a virus-tracing system for its sites that make over-the-counter drugs. Budaja Lim, head of digital supply chain technology for Asia Pacific at the company’s consumer health care division, said he wanted to ensure maximum privacy for workers who would wear the proximity detection sensors.

As a result, he said, the system silos the data it collects. It logs close contacts between workers using ID numbers, he said. And it separately records the ID numbers of workers who spent time in certain locations — like a packaging station in a warehouse — enabling the company to hyper-clean specific areas where an infected person may have spent time.

GlaxoSmithKline recently tested the system at a site in Malaysia and is rolling it out to other consumer health plants in Africa, Asia and Europe. The tracking data has also allowed the company to see where workers seem to be spending an unusual amount of time close together, like a security desk, and modify procedures to improve social distancing, Mr. Lim said.

“It was really designed to be a reactive type of solution” to trace workers with possible virus exposure, he said. “But it has actually become a really powerful tool to proactively manage and protect our employee safety.”

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Credit…Emily Rose Bennett for The New York Times

Oakland University, a public research university near Detroit, is at the forefront of schools and companies preparing to making the leap to the BioButton, a novel coin-size sensor attached to the skin 24/7 that uses algorithms to try to detect possible signs of Covid-19.

Whether such continuous surveillance of students, a young and largely healthy population, is beneficial is not yet known. Researchers are only in the early phases of studying whether wearable technology could help flag signs of the disease.

David A. Stone, vice president for research at Oakland University, said school officials had carefully vetted the BioButton and concluded it was a low-risk device that, added to measures like social distancing and mask wearing, might help hinder the spread of the virus. The technology will alert campus health services to students with possible virus symptoms, he said, but the school will not receive specific data like their temperature readings.

“In an ideal world, we would love to be able to wait until this is an F.D.A.-approved diagnostic,” Dr. Stone said. But, he added, “nothing about this pandemic has been in an ideal world.”

Dr. James Mault, chief executive of BioIntelliSense, the start-up behind the BioButton, said students with privacy concerns could ask to have their personal details stripped from the company’s records. He added that BioIntelliSense was preparing to conduct a large-scale study examining its system’s effectiveness for Covid-19.

Oakland had initially planned to require athletes and dorm residents to wear the BioButton. But the university reversed course this summer after nearly 2,500 students and staff members signed a petition objecting to the policy. The tracker will now be optional for students.

“A lot of colleges are doing masks and social distancing,” said Tyler Dixon, a senior at the school who started the petition, “but this seemed like one step too far.”

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Google Faces European Inquiry Into Fitbit Acquisition

LONDON — European Union authorities on Tuesday announced an investigation into Google’s $2.1 billion purchase of the fitness-tracking company Fitbit, raising alarms about the health data the internet giant would be acquiring as part of the deal.

The inquiry shows the increased scrutiny Google and other large technology companies are facing from regulators in Europe and the United States about their growing dominance of the digital economy. Officials have raised concerns that the biggest tech platforms buy smaller companies to solidify their dominance and limit competition.

Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission’s top antitrust regulator, said a preliminary investigation of the Fitbit deal had raised concerns about how Google would use data collected from Fitbit for its online advertising services, a market where Google is already dominant. The health and fitness data could be used to more narrowly target ads, she said.

“By increasing the data advantage of Google in the personalization of the ads it serves via its search engine and displays on other internet pages, it would be more difficult for rivals to match Google’s online advertising services,” the commission said in a statement announcing the investigation.

The commission, the executive body of the European Union, said the investigation would be completed by Dec. 9.

Google defended the acquisition, saying it competes with companies like Apple, Samsung and Garmin that offer fitness tracking devices.

“This deal is about devices, not data,” Rick Osterloh, senior vice president for devices and services, said in a blog post. The company said it would not use Fitbit health and wellness data for advertising services and offered to make a legally binding commitment to the commission to limit its use of the data.

Google said last year that it was buying Fitbit to gain a foothold in the market for wearable devices. One of the earliest companies in the segment, Fitbit helped popularize the goal of logging 10,000 steps a day. More recently, the San Francisco-based company has faced stiff competition from Apple and other makers of so-called smartwatches that blend some of the functionality of a smartphone with tracking of fitness activity.

Acquiring Fitbit would give Google another brand of hardware products. In recent years, the tech giant has introduced a series of Pixel smartphones and home appliances like its Nest thermostats and security cameras. On Tuesday, Google also announced that it was buying a $450 million stake in the home alarm company ADT.

The Fitbit deal had been expected to face government scrutiny as regulators look more closely at tech-industry acquisitions. In hindsight, many regulators view approval of past deals like Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp, or Google’s purchase of the online advertising platform DoubleClick, as having undermined competition in the market.

The European investigation adds to the regulatory challenges facing Google.

Last week, Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was grilled by members of Congress over the company’s business practices, along with the top executives from Amazon, Apple and Facebook. Google is facing a possible antitrust suit from the Justice Department, along with an investigation from a collection of state attorneys general.

Google has long been a target of the European Union. From 2017 to 2019, Ms. Vestager’s office issued fines totaling roughly 8.25 billion euros, or about $9.7 billion, in three separate cases related to its online shopping service, Android mobile software and online advertising business. The penalties are now under appeal.

The European Consumer Organization, a Brussels-based group pushing for more oversight of the tech industry, cheered the Fitbit investigation.

“This takeover is likely to be a worrying game changer not only for how consumers interact with the online world but also for how their health data is used,” Monique Goyens, the group’s director general, said in a statement. “It is hugely important that the E.U. carries out this in-depth examination because wearable devices like Fitbit’s could in future give companies details of essentially everything consumers do 24/7.”

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The Tech That Will Invade Our Lives in 2020

The 2010s made one thing clear: Tech is everywhere in life.

Tech is in our homes with thermostats that heat up our residences before we walk through the door. It’s in our cars with safety features that warn us about vehicles in adjacent lanes. It’s on our television sets, where many of us are streaming shows and movies through apps. We even wear it on ourselves in the form of wristwatches that monitor our health.

In 2020 and the coming decade, these trends are likely to gather momentum. They will also be on display next week at CES, an enormous consumer electronics trade show in Las Vegas that typically serves as a window into the year’s hottest tech developments.

At the show, next-generation cellular technology known as 5G, which delivers data at mind-boggling speeds, is expected to take center stage as one of the most important topics. We are also likely to see the evolution of smart homes, with internet-connected appliances such as refrigerators, televisions and vacuum cleaners working more seamlessly together — and with less human interaction required.

“The biggest thing is connected everything,” said Carolina Milanesi, a technology analyst for the research firm Creative Strategies. “Anything in the home — we’ll have more cameras, more mics, more sensors.”

If some of this sounds the same as last year, it is — but that’s because new technologies often take time to mature.

Here’s what to watch in tech this year.

In the last few years, Amazon, Apple and Google have battled to become the center of our homes.

Their virtual assistants — Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri — respond to voice commands to play music from speakers, control light bulbs and activate robot vacuums. Smart home products work well, but they are complicated to set up, so most people use virtual assistants just for basic tasks like setting a kitchen timer and checking the weather.

Then in December, Amazon, Apple and Google came to what appeared to be a truce: They announced that they were working together on a standard to help make smart home products compatible with one another.

In other words, when you buy an internet-connected light bulb down the line that works with Alexa, it should also work with Siri and Google Assistant. This should help reduce confusion when shopping for home products and improve the ease with which connected gadgets work with one another.

Ms. Milanesi said that eliminating complexity was a necessary step for the tech giants to achieve their ultimate goal: seamless home automation without the need for people to tell the assistants what to do.

“You want the devices to talk to each other instead of me being the translator between these device interactions,” she said. “If I open my door, then the door can say to the lights that the door is open and therefore the lights need to turn on.”

If and when that happens, your home will truly — and finally — be smart.

In 2019, the wireless industry began shifting to 5G, a technology that can deliver data at such incredibly fast speeds that people will be able to download entire movies in a few seconds.

Yet the rollout of 5G was anticlimactic and uneven. Across the United States, carriers deployed 5G in just a few dozen cities. And only a handful of new smartphones last year worked with the new cellular technology.

In 2020, 5G will gain some momentum. Verizon said it expected half the nation to have access to 5G this year. AT&T, which offers two types of 5G — 5G Evolution, which is incrementally faster than 4G, and 5G Plus, which is the ultrafast version — said it expected 5G Plus to reach parts of 30 cities by early 2020.

Another sign that 5G is really taking hold? A broader set of devices will support the new wireless standard.

Samsung, for one, has begun including 5G support on some of its newer Galaxy devices. Apple, which declined to comment, is also expected to release its first 5G-compatible iPhones this year.

And 5G will be going to work behind the scenes, in ways that will emerge over time. One important benefit of the technology is its ability to greatly reduce latency, or the time it takes for devices to communicate with one another. That will be important for the compatibility of next-generation devices like robots, self-driving cars and drones.

For example, if your car has 5G and another car has 5G, the two cars can talk to each other, signaling to each other when they are braking and changing lanes. The elimination of the communications delay is crucial for cars to become autonomous.

It’s a time of intense competition in wearable computers, which is set to lead to more creativity and innovation.

For a long while, Apple has dominated wearables. In 2015, it released Apple Watch, a smart watch with a focus on health monitoring. In 2016, the company introduced AirPods, wireless earbuds that can be controlled with Siri.

Since then, many others have jumped in, including Xiaomi, Samsung and Huawei. Google recently acquired Fitbit, the fitness gadget maker, for $2.1 billion, in the hope of playing catch-up with Apple.

Computer chips are making their way into other electronic products like earphones, which means that companies are likely to introduce innovations in wearable accessories, said Frank Gillett, a technology analyst for Forrester. Two possibilities: earphones that monitor your health by pulling pulses from your ears, or earbuds that double as inexpensive hearing aids.

“That whole area of improving our hearing and hearing the way other people hear us is really interesting,” he said.

We have rushed headlong into the streaming era, and that will only continue.

In 2019, Netflix was the most-watched video service in the United States, with people spending an average of 23 minutes a day streaming its content, according to eMarketer, the research firm. In all, digital video made up about a quarter of the daily time spent on digital devices last year, which included time spent on apps and web browsers.

Netflix’s share of the overall time we spend watching video on devices will probably decline in 2020, according to eMarketer, because of the arrival of competing streaming services like Disney Plus, HBO Max and Apple TV Plus.

“Even though Americans are spending more time watching Netflix, people’s attention will become more divided as new streamers emerge,” Ross Benes, an analyst at eMarketer, said in a blog post.

So if you don’t like “The Mandalorian,” “The Morning Show” or “Watchmen,” you won’t change the channel. You will just switch to a different app.

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NYT > Business