Many industries are hit hard by COVID-19, and one of the hardest hit is the festival industry. With no festivals planned for the foreseeable future, the multi-billion dollar industry grinded to a halt.
Amsterdam-based Dutchband usually delivers payment systems and wristbands for the largest of gatherings. They had to think quickly, and came up with Wat-pod. With a lack of festivals, this little wearable gadget could make their company COVID-proof by doing the same for others.
Social distance-alarm on the shoulder
Wat-pod, short for ‘working apart together pod’, is a small wearable device that ensures proper social distancing among workers. The gadget is attached to one’s shoulder. Once the worker gets too close, within 1.5 meters, of another worker it lights up and starts beeping. As soon as they move away to a safe distance, the Wat-pod alarm goes off. This way employees of, for instance, warehouses or construction sites, where there are no fixed workplaces, can make sure they keep their distance from their colleagues. All to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Dutchband, that makes the Wat-pod, is a company from Amsterdam that provides large festivals and events with wristbands and tokens as well as mobile payment solutions and fancy led-wristbands for some cool ‘surround light effects’. The company was founded and is owned by Ties and Taco Carlier. That’s right, the VanMoof-brothers. As soon as their bicycle brand took off in 2008, they decided to focus their energy there. Michiel Fransen was appointed to run Dutchband. Quite a challenge, as their complete market has collapsed due to COVID-restrictions.
The VanMoof connection
“We are 95 percent dependent on the large festivals for our revenue,” says Fransen. “Right now it is completely unclear when they can start again. The current messages from the Dutch government don’t give us much hope. A vaccine may take another year and a half. ” Dutchband currently employs 30 people in Amsterdam. The last thing Fransen wanted to do, he says, was say goodbye to any of them. “We’re lucky that VanMoof is incredibly busy right now, so they could use some extra hands.” But nevertheless, Dutchband needed something smart to keep afloat.
The eureka-moment came when they got a phone call from a freight company operating off Schiphol Airport. Fransen: “They wanted to know if we had wristbands that could be used to ensure social distancing in their warehouses.” Dutchband didn’t, but they also didn’t say ‘no’. “We had a first concept within a week. Mostly based on technology we already had in-house and we have our own product and software developers.”
How Wat-pod solved the bluetooth case
To measure the distance to others, Wat-pod uses bluetooth. A somewhat remarkable choice after it was widely panned as a way to measure distance on smartphone-apps that claimed to enforce social distancing. But Fransen says they’ve solved that problem. “We made some adjustments to allow us to measure distance precisely.”
Key to this solution is to take out as many variables as possible. If two smartphones have to use their bluetooth connection to measure the distance between them, a lot has to be taken into account. Different bluetooth antennas give off signals in different strengths and the placement of the smartphone on a person’s body can partly block the signal. Fransen: “With Wat-pod you work with all the same devices with the same technology. That takes away a lot of variables. It is also important that the pod is worn in a certain way, relative to the body and with the antenna in the right orientation.” According to Fransen, the Wat-pod can measure distance reliably with a margin of error of around 5 to 10 centimeters.
‘Keep it simple’
Fransen kept the device as simple as possible. “It is important in product development to not try and do everything. Extra features will take longer to develop. And most of the time they are not what your customer is looking for.” That’s why the Wat-pod basically does one thing: stick it on your shoulder and it will run the alarm when a Wat-pod wearing colleague gets too close. The pod does come with its own software. With this, you can for example change the 1.5 meter distance the pods monitor. This could prove important for the international market, since in the US and UK they like to keep 6 feet distance, roughly 1.8 meters.
Other social distancing devices for workers
Dutchband is not the only one with the idea for a social distancing alarm. Several other initiatives have popped up, such as COVID-Alarm in The Netherlands and Rombit in Belgium. They all offer a similar solution with a slightly different approach. Rombit, for instance, is based on employee tracking technology and is currently piloting in the harbour of Antwerp. It keeps a constant track of where everyone is. Handy when working with hazardous materials, so when something goes wrong you can easily account for everyone. But overkill for many companies that just want their workers to stay away from each other. Fransen: “Most of these companies are in the same phase as we are. I think we have an edge by running pilots in large work environments”.
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Because the Wat-pods are currently being used by several companies at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. There are pilots running at different freighting companies such as Swissport, Rhenus and WorldWide Flight Services. Fransen: “What we want to find out during these pilots, is if it really helps workers to keep their distance. How do we adapt to the environment and are there things that we haven’t thought of yet?” According to Fransen, there is more to come for Wat-pod. “We are currently training other interested parties for the use of Wat-pods. And we are working with airplane manufacturers and one of the largest IT-companies in the world to implement our solution.”
‘Just as busy with Wat-pod’
Fransen says demand for the pod seems through the roof. “We didn’t even have a product when the website went live. But the first orders immediately rolled in.” The first Wat-pods are scheduled for delivery at the end of July. In the meantime, Fransen is trying to expand their horizon. “The market for this product is incredibly broad. Everyday you end up in situations where you think: ‘this could use a smart solution’. When you look at how close people get to one another in supermarkets, for instance.”
Importantly for Dutchband, by coming up with the Wat-pod Fransen has also found a way not having to worry about festivals any more. “Considering the requests we’re getting for Wat-pod, I think we’ll be alright until the start of the next festival season,” he says. “Normally at this time of the year we’re incredibly busy with rolling out payment solutions at festivals. I can honestly say that right now we’re just as busy with this project.”