A Chinese Startup Is Selling Glasses for Virus Detection to US Businesses

When will lockdowns end, and what will life be like when they do?

These are the questions on most of our minds today; we’ve accepted that even once restrictions ease, society won’t go back to looking like it did in 2019. Whether that means sitting six feet apart from other diners in restaurants (and said restaurants therefore continuing to hemorrhage money), kids alternating going to school week by week, or having to flash an “immunity passport” to get on a plane—it’s gonna be tough, and we’re going to have no choice but to adapt and make the best of some dire circumstances.

How will we open up the economy and get people back to work while simultaneously preventing new Covid-19 outbreaks? Where will we draw the line between the greater good and personal privacy and freedoms? Innovative companies are working to put together solutions that would walk this line, hopefully without crossing it.

One such company is a Chinese startup called Rokid. Based in Hangzhou with an office in San Francisco, Rokid has been focused on augmented reality glasses since its founding in 2014. But shortly after the novel coronavirus took center stage in China in January, the company started developing thermal imaging glasses, and churned out the new product in less than two months. As reported by TechCrunch, the T1 glasses are already in use in China, and Rokid is now marketing them to businesses, hospitals, and law enforcement agencies in the US.

Equipped with an infrared sensor and a camera, the glasses allow their wearer to “see” peoples’ temperatures from up to almost 10 feet away, and they can take pictures and videos on demand. The current model of T1 glasses can measure temperature for up to 200 people in 2 minutes, and could thus be used effectively even in crowded spaces like malls or train stations.

Rokid glasses coronavirus detection
Image courtesy of Rokid

To privacy-cherishing Westerners (and, in particular, HIPAA-complying Americans), the idea of giving authority figures unfettered access to our health information—even something as rudimentary as our temperatures—may produce a knee-jerk negative reaction, feeling like a portent of greater privacy invasions to come.

But realistically speaking, new technological tools like this could be enormously helpful for keeping people safe once society kicks back into gear.

Here’s an example of what it could look like if US businesses adopt Rokid’s T1 glasses. Let’s say you work in a high-rise office building, and when you go back to work, the receptionist behind the entry desk has been joined by a security guard wearing the glasses. As you rush to make the elevator one morning, the guard stops you, telling you that your temperature is above average and you can’t proceed up to your office; you need to go home immediately and self-quarantine for 14 days, or get tested for the virus and come back with a negative result. Furthermore, there’s now a photo of your face being stored with a copy of the record showing you had a fever, and if you break quarantine, you could be ticketed and fined.

Reimagine this scenario at the entrance to a hospital or restaurant, or before boarding a plane. Then flip it: you’re on that plane, flying for the first time in months, and a little nervous about it. How much safer would you feel knowing that everyone else on board has had their temperature checked and been determined safe to proceed? It would be nice not to panic every time you hear a cough or a sneeze.

Customers who buy the glasses can decide how to use and store the data they gather; Rokid says it will not collect or store information from the glasses in its own databases. But as geopolitical tensions climb, some American organizations may have reservations about taking their word for it.

Use of the glasses could also come with some thorny questions around enforcement; what if someone who’s told not to board a plane tries to get on anyway, or someone told to go home refuses to do so, insisting they’re not sick? How far would the authority of someone wearing infrared glasses extend, and at what point would law enforcement get involved?

It’s also relevant to note that temperature as a sole indicator of Covid-19 infection isn’t reliable. For starters, it’s possible to have a fever and not have Covid-19 at all. Also, as we’ve learned, the virus is insidious in that you can be infected for several days without showing any symptoms; by the time you have a fever you may already have spread the virus without knowing it.

And that possibility brings up a final important point: like contact tracing, tools meant to stem the spread of the virus will be rendered largely useless if we don’t have widely-available diagnostic tests.

This is the tension we’re facing. The economic cost of lockdowns grows every day, and yet the cost of ending those lockdowns without a viable strategy and losing the ground we’ve gained could be even greater. To move back toward a semblance of normalcy, we’ll need tools to track and isolate infections. Technology is offering those tools, but they feed on information; the price, then, is our privacy.

We need to weigh the risks and benefits and ensure that the use of technology like Rokid’s glasses accomplishes near-term goals without sliding down a slippery ethical slope long-term.

A lot of details about the near future are up in the air right now. What’s certain is that our reality post-coronavirus will look very different than before—whether you’re seeing it through thermal glasses or not.

Image Credit: Rokid

Vanessa Bates Ramirez
Vanessa Bates Ramirez
Vanessa is senior editor of Singularity Hub. She's interested in biotechnology and genetic engineering, the nitty-gritty of the renewable energy transition, the roles technology and science play in geopolitics and international development, and countless other topics.
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