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The COVID-19 office buyers' guide: Wearables

If you want to open your office, here's what to know before investing in wearables.

Fitbit

Wearable devices could help companies monitor their employees' movements and health.

Photo: Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Fitbit Local

Offices around the world are starting to think about how they can safely reopen, and a lot of tech companies are looking to capitalize on the fear of congregating large groups of people in small spaces. Some technology may help keep office workers safe; some may just give the illusion of safety. Protocol spoke with experts to help you determine which technologies you should actually think about investing in — and which you can avoid.

Over the last decade, wearables have gone from something to track your steps as you go out for a run to tiny computers you wear on your wrist, even in the middle of a lake. But with all of their power, they haven't really taken hold in enterprise. COVID-19 may change that.

In just the last few weeks, companies have spun up new wearable products and reworked existing ones to supply the growing demand for devices that can track employees and make sure they're staying safe. Protocol spoke with companies and experts in the wearables world and found that these devices, although expensive, may be just what companies are looking for if they want to track social distancing throughout the workplace.

The benefits

There are essentially two types of wearables that employers could be considering: ones that track the location and movement of employees, and ones that monitor employees' health. There are devices that can do both, but many are being marketed as doing one or the other.

In the case of proximity tracking, devices can be used for monitoring compliance with social distancing guidelines, as well as for contact tracing in case someone gets sick. Depending on the device, they can work off of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or RFID; if two wearables come into close contact with each other, they can ping their respective wearers that they're too close to someone else, as well as potentially log that information and upload it to a manager's dashboard.

Haytham Elhawary, the CEO of workplace wearable device company Kinetic, told Protocol that the company decided to pivot to offering proximity warnings and contact tracing in its wearables after requests from existing clients. Kinetic's wearables, which are reminiscent of pagers from a bygone era, were designed to monitor workers' posture, but after a software update, they could be used for tracking.

"We built it with the idea of future-proofing it, not thinking that we were going to use it too quickly," Elhawary said. "As we've got these requests, we started figuring out we have the technology and the device to detect distance between devices that would allow us to do social distancing and proximity alerts."

Much like with posture tracking, Kinetic's devices now gamify how well workers have socially distanced. The wearable will tell them how many people they spent more than 10 minutes near the day before and how many times they came within 6 feet of someone. The devices are also connected to a software dashboard that can show managers how safely their employees are operating. And if someone gets sick, it can help them more easily figure out who to quarantine, given that remembering every conversation you've had over the last few weeks isn't a simple task.

"If someone gets sick, and you have to figure out who are all the workers that were in contact with them for more than 10 minutes over the last two weeks — and I don't even remember what I had for breakfast," Elhawary said.

Kinetic wearables in a warehouse. Kinetic's proximity-sensing wearable in action. Photo: Courtesy of Kinetic

There are other proximity trackers that use other form factors often found in the office that don't look like an '80s throwback. RightCrowd, for example, has created a Bluetooth-based monitor that's built into an ID badge lanyard that can alert the wearer to when they're too close to people. Proxxi, a Canadian safety-tech company, has also released Halo, which looks like a modern Fitbit, for distance monitoring and contact tracing.

For health-tracking wearables, the best way to track any changes in someone's body right now is to use their heart rate. Changes in resting heart rate over a period of time can potentially determine whether someone is ill, possibly even before they would realize it, according to the Michael Snyder, chair of Stanford Medicine's Department of Genetics. Snyder is working with Fitbit and Scripps to create a database that could potentially determine whether people wearing heart-rate-tracking wearables could be shown to have COVID-19 before they show symptoms. "We think smartwatches and rings can be very powerful sensors for when you're ill," Snyder told Protocol. "They've very scalable."

Related: The COVID-19 office buyers' guide: Temperature scanning

The benefits are pretty obvious: You'll know, to some degree, if your employees are getting sick. For Snyder's work, the project is only just coming out of beta for anyone to sign up to track symptoms, but he said he thinks it's a possible scenario that in six months, an app based on his team's work could be mandatory for employees to install on their company-issued wearable. The current study, although supported by Fitbit, is platform-agnostic.

"I think it would give people a head's up — in one case we picked up somebody 10 days early," Snyder said of the early test users. "That's pretty important, because that means there's 10 days they're not running around spreading it to everybody else."

Samsung has been working on a wearable, based on its Galaxy Watch Active2 watch, that it's marketing to office managers to track employees' movements for contact tracing and proximity monitoring. The devices, created in partnership with enterprise IoT company Radiant, can also monitor heart rates, but Samsung says in its marketing that it's not intended to diagnose any diseases. It's been testing the devices with Ford in Michigan since April. "Samsung is committed to developing and delivering solutions that adapt to and improve the ways we live and work," the company told Protocol. "We were able to jointly deliver a simple yet effective social distancing solution in a very short time to help folks get back to work."

The concerns

As with any coronavirus-related tech, nothing on its own is going to be a panacea. "We're not going to promise it's 100% perfect," Snyder said of his team's work, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't be helpful. "These devices all make 250,000 measurements a day — or more," Snyder said. "They're sampling you all the time, so you can really pick up even subtle shifts pretty easily."

Efficacy aside, most of these devices aren't cheap, so deploying them at scale may be a real cost consideration for any company. RightCrowd's offerings start at more than $2,000 for five badges, and Proxxi's Halos are $100 each. Kinetic sells its devices on a leasing model, which covers software updates and any fault units. The devices start at around $200 per unit, but Elhawary said there are economies of scale for larger orders.

Unlike many of the consumer-grade wearable on the market, however, Elhawary's devices are meant to withstand warehouse environments. "Our device is designed to be rugged — it's waterproof, sweatproof, spillproof — it's a natural extension of already being in this industry," he said.

Some consumer devices are a little more fragile — and costly. The latest Series 5 Apple Watch, for example, starts at $399, and the older Series 3 model sells for $199. Samsung's Galaxy Watch Active2 starts at $280 for a consumer model (the company wasn't immediately available to comment on enterprise pricing). The cheapest Fitbit smart watch is $160, and its cheapest step-tracker with a heart-rate monitor is $100. If you employ a few thousand people, these costs can rack up quickly.

Before the pandemic, some companies had experimented with wearable programs based around wellness, according to Gartner senior analyst Alan Antin. But the devices themselves weren't the only cost; the support that goes along with hundreds or thousands of employees who have health questions is also a consideration. "It's very expensive to do that on a per-employee basis," Antin said. "So the majority of employee wellness programs are just not able to do that because you're trying to serve a large number of employees, and it just becomes very expensive."

"The technology is definitely there," Antin added, pointing out the fact that Fitbit already has an entire enterprise division. "It's really more the question of who's going to pay."

Should you invest?

Investing in employee wellness is a costly endeavor, although Antin argued that many of the things that will generally keep employees healthy (being active, for example) can also reduce the chances of a critical COVID-19 case.

For social distancing and contact tracing, it's seeming increasingly likely that these are practices every business will have to employ if and when they reopen. "I think until there's a vaccination, people will — especially in indoor facilities like warehouses — they're going to have to social distance," Elhawary said. And at least for the near future, these practices will likely not be going anywhere.

Antin said he expects Google and Apple to eventually extend the contact-tracing software they've been working on for mobile devices to watches, but whether it could be leveraged for specific employers is unclear. For now, the only way to ensure your workplace is socially distancing is to track it, and to do that, the simplest way would be wearables. If you can stomach the cost.

Protocol | China

Everything you need to know about the Zhihu IPO

The Beijing-based question-and-answer site just filed for an IPO.

The Zhihu homepage.

David Wertime/Protocol

Investors eager to buy a slice of China's urban elite internet will soon have the chance. Zhihu, a Beijing-based question-and-answer site similar to the U.S.-based Quora, has just filed for an IPO to sell American Depositary Shares on the New York Stock Exchange.

What does Zhihu do?

Zhihu is China's largest online Q&A platform — the name comes from the expression "Do you know?" in classical Chinese. It was founded 10 years ago by Yuan Zhou (周源), a former journalist, and spent two years as an invite-only online platform. It quickly built a reputation as a source for quality answers and has drawn a community of elite professionals, including ZhenFund managing partner Bob Xu and venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee, also an early investor.

Over time, the Chinese-language Zhihu has become more mainstream, and now says it hosts 315.3 million questions and answers contributed by 43.1 million "creators." (Quora, about one year older than Zhihu, had almost 61 million questions and 108 million answers by the end of 2019). The website has grown into a content platform where people also keep diaries, write fiction and blog as social media influencers.

Zhihu users do not look like China as a whole. Most than half are men, most live in "Tier 1" cities and more than three-quarters are under 30 years old.

Zhihu continues to emphasize the quality of its content. "Zhihu is also recognized as the most trustworthy online content community and widely regarded as offering the highest-quality content in China," its prospectus says.

Zhihu's financials

Zhihu registered for its IPO via the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, a.k.a. the JOBS Act, which has reduced disclosure requirements for companies with less than $1.07 billion in annual revenue. Zhihu's revenue doubled from 2019 to 2020, but still only reached $207.2 million, and the company is short of profitability with a 2020 net loss of $79.3 million. The company says it's "still in an early stage of monetization" with "significant runway for growth across multiple new monetization channels."

Trend lines are good. Zhihu has managed to double revenue while keeping expenses largely constant, with selling and marketing aimed at growing Zhihu's user base as the biggest single expense.

The company is trying to diversify its revenue streams. In 2019, 86.1% came from advertising. 2020 saw advertising account for 62.4% while "content-commerce" — meaning native advertising — took in 10%. The rest was mostly paid memberships.

What's next for Zhihu

After years of evincing a relaxed attitude toward monetization, Zhihu is putting itself in the hot seat to do just that. Zhihu is betting that monetizing Chinese web users will get easier over time. The prospectus describes "significant growth potential" in China's "online content community market" and says average revenue per user in China is expected to more than triple from about $55 in 2019 to about $199 in 2025, with revenue in the overall market reaching a projected $200 billion in 2025.

The company looks like it will basically try everything to monetize, and see what sticks. It plans to "ramp up our online education service" and to "continue to explore other innovative monetization channels, such as content e-commerce and IP-based monetization."

The prospectus also mentions AI frequently, touting Zhihu's AI content moderation tool wali as well as a "question routing system" and "feed recommendation and search systems." However, the depth and quality of content remains far more important to Zhihu's success. Users have joked on Zhihu about the poor quality of its wali filter.

What could go wrong?

Zhihu could fail to turn a profit. Like most content platforms, Zhihu has found it hard to monetize its traffic and the vast amount of free content at its core. The platform was built on the premise that anyone can acquire professional knowledge easily, which means users are not inclined to pay.

Since 2016, Zhihu has tried many monetization models: paid physical/virtual events, online courses taught by its top creators, premium memberships and paid consulting services. None have been a hit. Zhihu Live, the paid virtual event product, attracted a lot of public attention in 2016 and 2017, but since then its popularity has waned. According to the prospectus, Zhihu currently has 2.4 million paying members, or only 3.4% of its monthly active users.

Zhihu also faces intense competition. Defined narrowly, it has no rivals, with would-be contenders like Baidu Zhidao and Wukong, owned by ByteDance, falling by the wayside. But Zhihu has positioned itself as something more: a community for diverse content. In this regard, it's competing with big public-facing social media platforms such as the Twitter-like Weibo and Bilibili. While Zhihu's 68.5 million monthly active user base is growing fast, Weibo has over 500 million and Bilibili over 200 million. Zhihu differentiates itself with the quality and depth of its content, but maintaining that creates inevitable tension with the business imperative to expand.

Like every content platform in China, Zhihu is subject to rigid state censorship and faces harsh penalties for failing to police speech itself. Politically-sensitive questions are nowhere to be found on the platform, while other topics including transgender rights have been censored in the past. Even so, in March 2018, Zhihu was taken off every mobile app store for seven days at the request of Beijing's municipal Cyberspace Administration. Authorities did not specify why, but the suspension probably related to subtle criticisms of Xi Jinping on the platform; Zhihu promised to "make adjustments."

Zhihu's prospectus is largely mum on the censorship question, perhaps because the company feels it's gotten good enough at doing it. Zhihu says it has a "comprehensive community governance system" that combines "AI-powered content assessment algorithms" with the ability of users to report each other as well as "proprietary know-how." These resemble the same tools most big Chinese social media platforms use to censor content and keep in Beijing's good graces.

Who gets rich?

Here's what we know:

  • Founder, CEO and Chairman Yuan Zhou currently owns 8.2% of Zhihu, with another 8% worth of options, which he can exercise within 60 days of the IPO, held in a separate holding company controlled by a trust of which he is the beneficiary. Following exercise, Zhou will have the vast majority of aggregate voting power.
  • Innovation Works, beneficially owned by Peter Liu and Kai-Fu Lee, owns 13.1% of Zhihu. According to corporate database Qichacha, Innovation Works invested about $153,000 in an angel round in January 2011, then made follow-on investments in the C and D rounds.
  • Tencent owns 12.3%.
  • Qiming Entities owns 11.3%. According to corporate database Qichacha, Qiming invested $1 million in Zhihu's series A, then made follow-on investments in the B, C and D rounds.

Kuaishou, Baidu and Sogou also own stakes, as does SAIF IV Mobile Apps Limited.

Innovation Works' Kai-Fu Lee and Peter Liu, and Qiming Ventures, both of which invested early and often, look like the biggest winners besides founder Zhou.

What people are saying

"Zhihu, if it ever wants to be a truly massive platform, will need to go out of the hardcore knowledge-sharing space, and become more mainstream, more entertaining, and yes, even less intellectual. But to capture that market, who better to partner with than Kuaishou, who built its business on exactly those characteristics?" —Ying-Ying Lu, co-host of Tech Buzz China.

"After separating video content into its own feed, Zhihu is now in competition with Bilibili and [ByteDance-owned] Xigua Video. Education-themed videos used to be one of the important growth drivers for the latter two apps. Now [Zhihu], the app that specialized in educational content, has joined the game." —Lan Xi (pen name), independent tech writer.

David Wertime

David Wertime is Protocol's executive director. David is a widely cited China expert with twenty years' experience who has served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China, founded and sold a media company, and worked in senior positions within multiple newsrooms. He also hosts POLITICO's China Watcher newsletter. After four years working on international deals for top law firms in New York and Hong Kong, David co-founded Tea Leaf Nation, a website that tracked Chinese social media, later selling it to the Washington Post Company. David then served as Senior Editor for China at Foreign Policy magazine, where he launched the first Chinese-language articles in the publication's history. Thereafter, he was Entrepreneur in Residence at the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 2019, David joined Protocol's parent company and in 2020, launched POLITICO's widely-read China Watcher. David is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Research Associate at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Contemporary China, a Member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, and a Truman National Security fellow. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Diane and his puppy, Luna.

Sponsored Content

The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
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Citizen added COVID-19 tracking to its app over the summer — but its bigger plans got derailed.

Photo: Citizen

Citizen is an app built on the idea that transparency is a good thing. It's the place users — more than 7 million of them, in 28 cities with many more to come soon — can find out when there's a crime, a protest or an incident of any kind nearby. (Just yesterday, it alerted me, along with 17,900 residents of Washington, D.C., that it was about to get very windy. It did indeed get windy.) Users can stream or upload video of what's going on, locals can chat about the latest incidents and everyone's a little safer at the end of the day knowing what's happening in their city.

At least, that's how CEO Andrew Frame sees it. Critics of Citizen say the app is creating hordes of voyeurs, incentivizing people to run into dangerous situations just to grab a video, and encouraging racial profiling and other problematic behaviors all under the guise of whatever "safety" means. They say the app promotes paranoia, alerting users to things that they don't actually need to know about. (That the app was originally called "Vigilante" doesn't help its case.)

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Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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"They need help with rent. They need help to get food. They need help with basic bills," GoFundMe CEO Tim Cadogan said. "That's what people need help with to get through this period."

Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

Tim Cadogan started his first day as CEO of GoFundMe about two weeks before the pandemic wrecked the world. He knew he was joining a company that tried to help people make extra money. He didn't know his company would become a lifeline for millions of Americans who couldn't pay their bills or put food on the table.

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