Amazon’s ‘Distance Assistant’ uses AI and AR to provide real-time social distancing feedback

[Artificial intelligence and augmented reality could provide a valuable way to perceive, and maintain, social distancing. The Amazon blog post below describes the company’s new “Distance Assistant” technology and includes a 32 second demonstration video. If AR-capable glasses were common, this technology could provide a first person view that evokes greater presence and would be even more useful. Coverage in TechCrunch makes a similar point:

“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.”

And along the same lines, a Reuters story adds this detail about the company’s efforts: “Amazon is also testing a wearable device that lights up and makes an audio alert when workers are too close to each other, according to an internal memo seen by Reuters.”

VentureBeat covers the increased scrutiny Amazon is facing in its response to the pandemic and links to a story (with video) about a similar AI/AR technology:

“A growing number of companies claim to offer solutions to discourage workers from congregating or coming into close contact with each other, but most of these are commercial. Beyond a system published by Landing AI last month, Amazon’s appears to be one of the first freely available.”

Finally, a different Reuters story takes a broader view of the use of technologies to track and enable/enforce social distancing.


Amazon introduces ‘Distance Assistant’

The company’s latest innovation provides real-time social distancing feedback and we plan to open source the technology

June 16, 2020
By Brad Porter, vice president and distinguished engineer leading Amazon’s robotics initiatives including robotic drive units, recent Canvas acquisition, the Scout delivery bot program and Prime Air drone delivery

At Amazon, we’re constantly innovating to support our employees, customers, and communities as effectively as possible. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many of our talented engineers rallied to support the health and safety of our associates working to get customers the products they needed. As we reimagined workstations and implemented new processes across our facilities, our engineering teams looked for ways to help maintain social distance. One early solution we developed applies artificial intelligence and machine learning to the camera footage in our buildings to help site leaders identify high traffic areas and implement additional measures to improve social distancing.

As we’ve continued to learn and innovate to support the health and safety of our associates, we also saw an opportunity to evolve our tech even further and promote social distancing behavior in real-time. Given social distancing isn’t always natural, this team set out to use augmented reality to create a magic-mirror-like tool that helps associates see their physical distancing from others. Working backwards from a concept of immediate visual feedback, and inspired by existing examples like radar speed check signs, our ‘Distance Assistant’ provides employees with live feedback on social distancing via a 50 inch monitor, a camera, and a local computing device. 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 6 feet of one another. Individuals remaining 6 feet apart are highlighted with green circles, while those who are closer together are highlighted with red circles. The on-screen indicators are designed to remind and encourage associates to maintain appropriate distance from others. The self-contained device requires only a standard electrical outlet, and can be quickly deployed to building entrances and other high-visibility areas.

Our first Distance Assistant installations are now live at a handful of our buildings. We’ve heard that employees find value in getting immediate visual feedback, and site leaders are welcoming another safety measure. Based on that positive employee feedback, we will be deploying hundreds of these units over the next few weeks. We are also beginning the process to open source the software and AI behind this innovation so that anyone can create their own Distance Assistant.

This solution is just one of many ideas that have surfaced over the past few months. 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.

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