A company in the Hickory area helped develop a technology that could make social distancing and coronavirus contact tracing easier.
VOLT Wearable Tech, a division of the Supreme Corp., normally makes high-tech yarns that are used to make things like heat-resistant fabrics. When the pandemic hit, VOLT and two other companies came together to design a new wearable technology.
“People were working 20 hours a day, around the clock,” said Matthew Kolmes, the head of Supreme. “Doing circuit board design, getting prototypes made, working on firmware, developing software. It was tough.”
The result is AlertTrace, a black plastic device about the size of a quarter.
“It can be worn on your wrist. It can be worn on your belt. It can be worn hanging from your ID tag or your lanyard,” Kolmes said.
The device hit the market in June. The Republican National Convention was among AlertTrace’s first customers: About 500 delegates and staff at the RNC event in Charlotte on Aug. 24 wore the fobs around their necks.
AlertTrace uses Bluetooth technology. The device is programmed to look for Bluetooth signals within six feet, i.e., other AlertTrace devices. So if two people wearing AlertTrace devices get too close to each other, each device records the other’s ID number along with the amount of time those people were in close contact.
The information is uploaded to a cloud-based software, which Kolmes said administrators can use to monitor how well people at an organization are social distancing.
“It allows you to look at social distancing and to enforce different behavior patterns where social distancing is not being followed or...where it’s very difficult to do,” Kolmes said.
According to Kolmes, AlertTrace could also simplify the coronavirus contact tracing process. When someone tests positive for the virus, he said, an organization could use a person’s AlertTrace ID to digitally generate a list of their recent close contacts and ask those people to quarantine or get tested, as opposed to manually tracking down each contact.
“If we have everybody’s cellphone number, then we can get very intentional and push out a text message notification and say, ‘You’ve been in contact with someone who’s tested positive,’” Kolmes said.
At least two other places have used or developed contact tracing wearables. According to TechCrunch, the startup Estimote created a new range of wearable devices in April. Government officials in Singapore issued “TraceTogether tokens” to thousands of vulnerable elderly people in July, the BBC reported.
The U.S. military has purchased 2,300 AlertTrace devices, which are currently manufactured in Florida and cost $34 each, Kolmes said. He said the company plans to “ramp up production” in the next month and a half.
Kolmes admitted there are some limitations to the AlertTrace technology. It still relies on people who test positive for the coronavirus to report that information to their employers. The device can’t test for the virus, so people who don’t have symptoms could still spread it without knowing.
AlertTrace also only works for people who wear the device, so it doesn’t record close contact with someone not wearing one.
“We don’t see AlertTrace as being a tool for the general public,” Kolmes said. “Then every person in a country would be required to wear it, and that’s not going to work.”
But Kolmes said he sees it as “a really good solution” in universities and schools, where students could be required to wear the device while on campus. He said the company has already been contacted by schools but would not specify which ones.
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