New Smartwatch for Contact Tracing

Two blue smartwatches for contact tracing that say, "You are broadcasting yourself anonymously."

By Katie Kroeze

More accurate contact tracing for COVID-19 might be as easy as a glance at your wristwatch, thanks to University of Guelph researchers. 

Drs. Petros Spachos and Stefano Gregori, engineering professors in the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, have developed a smartwatch to aid in contact tracing. Their device ensures greater accuracy than current smartphone tracing applications while keeping a user’s identity anonymous. 

“This project came about due to the need for more accurate and private contact tracing for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” says Spachos. “Due to the highly contagious nature of the SARS-CoV2 virus, contact tracing helps put people at ease knowing that they’ll be alerted of any close contact with a COVID-positive individual.”

This smartwatch leverages Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and differs from regular Bluetooth technology because it has much lower power consumption and cost while maintaining the communication range. It is supported by both android and iOS operating systems.

The researchers accounted for two phases of contact tracing in their technology. The interacting phase considers the number of daily contacts, duration of the contact and the contact’s proximity to the person. The tracing phase occurs once someone has been diagnosed with an infectious disease. 

The smartwatch notifies users in real time if they fail to practice physical distancing. If someone tests positive for COVID-19, the smartwatch will notify individuals they’ve been close to within the past two weeks. 

Along with the alert, the smartwatch will provide next steps to minimize disease spread, such as self-quarantine or testing.

The smartwatch has been fully developed for android devices and is currently being developed for iOS users. 

“When the COVID-19 tracing smartphone app was launched during the pandemic, many people were concerned that their private information would be compromised,” says Spachos. “Fortunately, these smartwatches prevent that breach in privacy.”

These novel smartwatches hold no personal information. Anonymity is maintained since BLE uses an ambient signature, meaning that location-related and user identity information is never exchanged between devices. 

They also use a non-connectable advertising channel, meaning no malicious device can access information on the smartwatch.

The smartwatch has higher accuracy since it’s a wearable device, unlike a cellphone. Cellphones may be left in backpacks or pockets, causing the proximity sensing to lose accuracy – and in many workplaces, employees are not able to carry a cellphone with them.

“Wearable contact tracing can assist in workplace reopening better than smartphone contact tracing due to its higher accuracy,” says Spachos. “There’s still a lot of work to be done on the public perception of contact tracing as it only works if everyone works together.”

While this smartwatch is being developed for COVID-19 tracing, it can track other infectious diseases, he says.

His research team includes Dr. Konstantinos Plataniotis from University of Toronto’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and PhD student Pai Chet Ng from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Department of Electronics and Computer Engineering.

This research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council COVID-19 Alliance and U of G’s Research Development and Catalyst Fund.