Did you know that elevator buttons often contain 40 times more bacteria than a public toilet seat, that viruses live up to 24 hours on non-porous surfaces such as door handles, and 80% of sickness-causing germs spread via hands? We would never intentionally touch a public toilet seat, so why then do we not think twice about pressing an elevator button and then shaking someone’s hand?

COVID-19 has made us more sensitive to a countless number of truths: what really lives on the surfaces we touch, how can we monitor and maintain our physical assets without humans, and how do we ensure the health and safety of those who live or work in our buildings. It is time for a digital transformation. It is time to incorporate contactless connectivity in our business strategy to enable community and building residents to feel safer.

Technologies that are available today, or being accelerated by COVID-19, can allow us to have hands-free access throughout buildings, talk directly to faucets, understand how assets are utilized, and detect issues before they turn catastrophic. Below I share a few forward-thinking companies building physical and digital technologies and combining them through analytics, artificial intelligence, and IoT to create experiences that are both interconnected and intelligent.

Internet of Eyes and Ears

Smart-home technology, specifically locks, thermostats, light switches, and leak detection sensors, are critical to the infrastructure needed to deliver a seamless and connected experience. In addition to the customer experience, it facilitates operational efficiency by decreasing utility expenses in common areas, show homes, or vacant units by automating through a singular dashboard or app. Lastly, leak detection sensors help reduce property damage with real-time water leakage alerts.

Face ID. Future. Half Face of Young Caucasian Woman for Face Detection. Brown Female Eye Biometrical Iris Scan Reading for Person Identification. Augmented Reality. 3D Technology Concept.
Face ID. Future. Half Face of Young Caucasian Woman for Face Detection. Brown Female Eye Biometrical Iris Scan Reading for Person Identification. Augmented Reality. 3D Technology Concept.

The next evolution of IoT is IoEE, the internet of eyes and ears. This technology integrates visual, gesture and voice technology into devices and uses the consumer’s biometrics as the activation point. IoEE moves beyond IoT to create an intuitive and frictionless experience.

So rather than scream across the room at Alexa, appliances and devices such as light switches and faucets have voice built into them. This not only eliminates the need to have a voice activated hub in each room, but also the frequent touching of germ-infested surfaces.

Kohler is leading this innovation in the home building sector with its Kohler Konnect line of products focused on voice-command technology for bathrooms and kitchens. According to Kohler’s website, “Consumers can interact with KOHLER Konnect by using voice-commands, hands-free motion control and personalized presets managed through a new KOHLER Konnect application for iOS and Android devices. Consumers can operate the kitchen faucet, control features of an intelligent toilet, adjust the lighting embedded in a bathroom mirror, run an invigorating shower, and automatically fill a bath to a desired depth and temperature all by using simple voice-commands.”

Additionally, smart lock manufacturers are prototyping locks that can unlock a door by recognizing and authenticating biometrics of a registered user’s face. These locks work by mapping the 3D facial contours of the user so the lock is not deceived by a photo or a similar face, akin to how facial authentication operates on newer iPhone and laptop models. Once this technology is available (and thoroughly vetted for cybersecurity issues), adoption may be fast given that biometric based access has already become mainstream.

Hands-free Access

Common area doors, particularly in high-traffic areas such as an apartment or community building front entrance, bathrooms, conference rooms and gyms, are most susceptible to germ collection. A remarkably simple, convenient, and safe solution that could help stop the spread is designing buildings with automatic doors in key areas or retrofitting them with automatic door openers manufactured by companies such as Assa Abloy. Openers come in many forms and each area must be evaluated on whether it needs permission-based access control or not.

For areas that do not require access control such as bathrooms, gyms and other rooms, wave to open technology appears to be a viable solution. This technology is frequently used in hospitals where there is a high likelihood of transmitting infectious diseases. In single-family homes, builders could provide this as a tech upgrade on the interior garage door to the mudroom and solve for both health and convenience – one that customers would appreciate when their hands are dirty and full of bags–or children!

More often, however, common area doors are access-controlled and you will need to partner with a cloud-based software platform like Openpath, a leader in the commercial real estate sector, to provide a hands-free experience. With this approach, your smartphone becomes your primary credential and the app can interact with all locking mechanisms in the building, elevators and parking garages. When you combine this technology with automatic openers, you can achieve touch-less access throughout your building.

The inclusion of these technologies will not only slow the spread of COVID-19, but all infectious diseases, including the common cold and flu and get us one step closer to healthier living.

Intelligent Structures: Spatial Analytics and Smart Buildings

We have also become aware of another notable challenge during this pandemic. How do we effectively maintain visibility and monitor spaces and systems, while limiting human presence in these areas? Also, how can we ensure employees, customers or tenants are abiding by social gathering policies and cleaners are regularly cleaning spaces? Owners rely heavily on building managers, rather than technology to gather and analyze data and make subsequent recommendations, which leaves them in the blind when staffing is reduced or eliminated in a building.

Sensor-based building IoT technology can digitize the physical infrastructure of a building to monitor it remotely
Sensor-based building IoT technology can digitize the physical infrastructure of a building to monitor it remotely

Spatial analytics, still a nascent technology in real estate and hospitality, can digitize physical spaces and track utilization and engagement. It is helpful to think of it as Google Analytics for physical spaces. Using a camera built with computer visioning and deep learning, it can anonymously track how individuals are engaging with a space based on length of time and interactions with objects within the space like couches and bar stools.

There are two use cases that immediately come to mind during the pandemic: monitoring gatherings/social distancing and scheduling cleaning. First, as people return to work, whether that’s at an office, hotel, restaurant, retail store, or apartment building, you will need to understand the number of people in a space and the distance that they maintain between each other and how that impacts new operating procedures. For example, if people are congregating in the break room, you may need to shut it down or put stricter policies in place.

Second, you can evaluate usage patterns in specific areas to more efficiently schedule cleanings. With occupancy sensors you can tell if 15 people went in and out of a conference room. However, that information is not as valuable as what spatial analytics can provide, which is the length of time these people spent in the room. If those 15 people spent approximately one minute in the room (perhaps they were giving a tour), then there is less urgency to clean the space then if those 15 people had spent 45 minutes having a meeting. Owners can also share this type of occupancy and cleaning data back to tenants, staff, and visitors to help them feel safer and build confidence in the cleanliness of the building.

Beyond pandemic-related use cases, this level of intelligence can inform the industry how to plan and optimize spaces in future developments by understanding patterns that people use organically. Edifice, a spatial analytics company, recently conducted a case study to understand how a sports bar amenity space located in an apartment building was being utilized. They found that a group of people were regularly using the space for an average of 45 minutes on Tuesday mornings. They also found that the space was severely underutilized on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Upon seeing this data, the building manager discovered that residents were hosting a mommy and me class on Tuesdays, a very different purpose than the intended purpose of the sports bar. They used this data to build thoughtful partnerships with local retailers that would be meaningful to this group. They also found revenue opportunities during the underutilized times by partnering with Peerspace to host corporate events.

Similar to spatial analytics, sensor-based building IoT technology can digitize the physical infrastructure of a building to monitor it remotely, alerting building engineers of issues with real-time notifications. Companies like Enertiv have built an end-to-end solution that can help reduce energy and utility consumption by using analytics and benchmarks to proactively identify underperforming systems. The technology also can streamline operations, and most importantly, identify issues in real time by collecting data, pinpointing the exact location of the problem, and illustrating how to repair it.

Both spatial analytics and building IoT technology can provide a deep level of insights so builders and developers can make informed decisions, streamline operations, find new revenue opportunities and build more intelligently.

Prepare for Another Wave

We can only hope that a second wave of the virus does not occur. However, if we do experience another wave in the winter, it is important to incorporate these technologies now and prepare with more intelligent real estate technology.