NASA's JPL open-sources an anti-face-touching wearable to help reduce the spread of COVID-19

Darrell Etherington

There are some wearables out there in the world that are making claims around COVID-19 and their ability to detect it, prevent it, certify that you don't have it and more. But a new wearable device from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory might actually be able to do the most to prevent the spread of COVID-19 -- and it's not really all that technically advanced or complicated.

JPL's PULSE wearable uses 3D-printed parts and readily available, affordable electronic components to do just one thing: remind a person not to touch their face. JPL's designers claim that it's simple enough that the gadget "can easily be reproduced by anyone regardless of their level of expertise," and to encourage more people and companies to actually do that, the lab has made available a full list of parts, 3D modeling files and full instructions for its assembly via an open-source license.

The PULSE is essentially a pendant, worn around the neck between six inches and one foot from the head. It can detect when a person's hand is approaching their face using an IR-based proximity sensor. A vibration motor then shakes out an alert, and the response becomes stronger as your hand gets closer to your face.

The hardware itself is simple -- but that's the point. It's designed to run on readily available 3V coin batteries, and if you have a 3D printer at hand for the case and access to Amazon, you can probably put one together yourself at home in no time.

The goal of PULSE obviously isn't to single-handedly eliminate COVID-19 -- contact transmission from contaminated hands to a person's mouth, nose or eyes is just one vector, and it seems likely that respiratory droplets that result in airborne transmission is at least as effective at passing the virus around. But just like regular mask-wearing can dramatically reduce transmission risk, minimizing how often you touch your face can have a big combined effect with other measures taken to reduce the spread.

Other health wearables might actually be able to tell you when you have COVID-19 before you show significant symptoms or have a positive test result -- but work still needs to be done to understand how well those work, and how they could be used to limit exposure. JPL's PULSE has the advantage of being effective now in terms of building positive habits that we know will limit the spread of COVID-19, as well as other viral infections.

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