Amazon is using AR to encourage employee social distancing

From the outside, at least, Amazon’s COVID-19 response has been a mixed bag. The company has noted in various reports the things it’s been doing in an attempt to curb the virus’s spread — particularly among warehouse employees deemed essential workers. But various attorneys general, senators and other lawmakers have demanded more information about working conditions, infection rates and the firings of multiple whistleblowers.

These days, the company is hoping to shed a bit more light on what it’s doing within the warehouse setting to deal with the novel coronavirus. This morning, it showcased a new “Distance Assistant” designed to help workers maintain a WHO-prescribed social distance of six feet.

Amazon’s VP and robotics head Brad Porter detailed the augmented reality system that’s already in place in a smattering of the company’s fulfillment centers. “The standalone unit uses machine learning models to differentiate people from their surroundings. Combined with depth sensors, it creates an accurate distance measurement between associates. As people walk past the camera, a monitor displays live video with visual overlays to show if associates are within six feet of one another. Individuals remaining six feet apart are highlighted with green circles, while those who are closer together are highlighted with red circles.”

Image Credits: Amazon

The system is displayed on a 50-inch monitor. It’s not exactly immediate feedback that technology might be able to provide with, say, a haptic wearable. Instead, it’s designed to serve as a visual reminder for workers to keep their circles green by maintaining the appropriate social distancing.

There’s probably a privacy trade-off either way — be it a wearable or camera tracking. Amazon says it’s set to roll out hundreds of additional systems in its buildings over the next few weeks, due to positive feedback over early tests.

“This solution is just one of many ideas that have surfaced over the past few months,” says Porter. “Knowing my colleagues and their drive, it will not be the last. Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our employees and we’ll continue to innovate to keep them as safe as possible.”