Phase 2 of the “circuit breaker” was a welcomed relief for many businesses. But even as retailers and restaurateurs welcome patrons once again, strict safety measures put in place to combat Covid-19 present new challenges. Benjamin Low, vice president (Asia-Pacific) of global video management software company Milestone Systems, is an advocate of using advanced video technology, which has the potential to vastly improve the way businesses tackle the “new normal” 

SINGAPORE (July 9): A few months ago, visitors to the Bishan–Ang Mo Kio Park were greeted with a strange sight, one that could appear straight out of an episode of science fiction series Black Mirror. A bright-yellow, quadruped robot with a camera mounted on its back, walked the premises, reminding visitors to keep a distance of one metre apart.

The robot, named “Spot” by its makers Boston Dynamics — one of the world’s leading robotics companies — was sent to patrol the grounds of the 62–hectare park, as a part of a two-week pilot trial on using advanced technology to enforce social distancing rules.

Social media platforms were, of course, inundated with videos of ‘Spot’, as curious and amused crowds sought to interact with the robot. The robot made good use of artificial intelligence (AI) and video surveillance to monitor for crowds and maintain social distance.

Across the world, video technology is quickly emerging as a way to tackle the necessary and strict measures in place to curb the spread of Covid–19. From thermal imaging to crowd detection, the use of visual surveillance is growing quickly as companies seek to tackle the requirements of life in the “new normal”.

In fact, Reuters reports of companies saying that AI camera-based software will be crucial to staying open, as it will allow them to show not only workers and customers, but also insurers and regulators, that they are monitoring and enforcing safe practices.

In the US, online retail giant Amazon too has turned towards AI and video surveillance to improve on distancing measures within its premises. It was reported in June that Amazon has launched an AI-based tracking system to enforce social distancing at its offices and warehouses, a response to criticism that the company was not doing enough to keep their staff safe from the Covid–19 pandemic.

According to reports, monitors set up in the company’s warehouses will highlight workers keeping a safe distance in green circles, while workers who are closer will be highlighted in red circles. The system also uses camera footage in the company’s buildings to help identify high-traffic areas.

The use of video technology is something that Benjamin Low, vice president (Asia-Pacific) of global video management software company Milestone Systems, reckons is the way forward for businesses here in Singapore, be it for the F&B industry or retailers.

“Prior to Covid–19, we definitely saw that video technology adoption was largely for enhancing the customer experience in their premises. We saw a smaller adoption of video technology for (other purposes) but in the recent few months, we’ve seen a pretty steep increase in the adoption of video technology (for social–distancing measures) based on our interaction with our customers and partners especially in Singapore,” he explains.

Low notes that the increasing use has largely been down to the bigger companies, such as chain F&B operators or well-known retailers, which can easily take advantage and scale up said technology.

One good example is the newly reopened Funan Mall, where Low says utilises facial recognition technology to, among others identify shopper demographic and give personalised shopping recommendations and detect crowds. “Since the mall opened, they’ve utilised video technology to track customer shopping patterns, gender and age groups, and movement within the mall,” he says.

This customer–centric technology, he says, will easily translate to other use cases, such as security, temperature monitoring and crowd control, and he has definitely seen an increase in companies now using it to deal with strict Covid–19 measures.

Barrier to entry

However, the challenge lies in getting the smaller businesses, such as small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and the “mom–and–pop” shops, to adopt this technology to help them manage the safety measures more efficiently. “We see that the government is spending a lot of money to try to help our SMEs to adopt this new technology, and I’m hopeful and optimistic that more and more of these SME businesses will start to look at how they can fine-tune their business in this new era,” he says.

Low is however hopeful of the widespread adoption of video technology in this ‘new normal’, as he has observed a much reduced barrier to entry to this technology.

Many would assume that setting up a system to monitor and track crowds would be prohibitively expensive, but Low begs to differ. He estimates that for a simple crowd-control video system could cost as low $3,000 to $4,000, although with more advanced features comes increased cost. The benefits, he says, far outweighs the costs.

“I think one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to adopting video technology has always been fear, and second, perceived cost and complexity,” he says. “(Yet) technology has always been shown to benefit retailers when it comes to reducing manpower costs, which in turn would enable them to focus more on their core business.”

“For example, at many shops now, you will see at least one or two staff outside manually taking temperatures and checking–in visitors. This obviously presents manpower costs and safety issues for the staff. Video technology can cut this cost down and keep the staff safe as well,” he adds. “And, imagine automating the whole process — imagine if you can capture temperature (of visitors), and integrate it with the Safe Entry app, for example. It would be integrated and seamless.”

Furthermore, with the government’s strict safe– distancing measures in place, there is increased pressure on retailers to adhere to the regulations.

“Video technology will help retailers and restaurants keep an eye on crowd-mingling, for example, and would help avoid penalties that could be incurred if the staff, say, were unable to monitor closely,” Low notes.

Privacy concerns

Inevitably, the concerns of privacy would crop up when it comes to video surveillance. When “Spot” the robot dog was deployed at the Bishan–Ang Mo Kio Park, visitors were concerned it would track individual movement, although it was assured that the footage was for monitoring purposes only and would not identify individuals.

However, concerns have been raised about investing in technology that, once the pandemic is over, would cease to be useful. There are also worries about what happens with the data after the purpose of their collection is over. Security and access to the immense amount of data, too, is a privacy concern.

At Milestone, Low says they are very selective about the technology and their technology partners. “We ensure that our partners have to adhere to a code of conduct, we have guiding principles we follow around public interest, legitimate interests, consent and usage,” he explains.

Many video technology systems employ what is called ‘privacy masking’, where only your meta-data — say, age and gender — are captured and extracted, to be used for analysis. He explains: “Of course privacy is a big concern, and there are very strict rules enforced by the government around how data is stored and accessed,” he adds. “A lot of it is also trust; companies value and establish the trust between themselves and the customers. They are governed by this trust, imagine if this trust was broken by the businesses, the reputation loss (would be immense).”

Despite this, Low feels that if there has been a silver lining to the Covid–19 pandemic is the dramatic push felt by SMEs and businesses to embrace technology and to think out of the box when doing business. He adds:

“Traditionally, when we talk to smaller SMEs, they often say “Oh we just need a camera facing the front door to capture who is coming in (for security reasons), and when we propose that video technology can enhance the customer experience they tend not to think of it as important. Yet I think this Covid–19 virus has spurred more retailers and SMEs to think, how can we use video technology to run our business when manpower is a problem, or from threats of the virus.”

“I think technology has always been part of our everyday life, right? All of us use it extensively we’re pretty much on our phones 24/7,” he says.

“The challenge, today, to me, is that there are too many Internet of Things (IoT) devices out there, whether cameras or refrigerators.” He concludes: “To me, the world would be a lot safer, and a lot more interesting if somehow we can find a way to connect all these different devices — from headphones to cameras to streets lamps — and make sense of the data coming in. And, finally, during this lockdown and this post-Covid world is when people will start to sit back and rethink their business and how they can reinvent themselves in the coming years to cope with these new challenges,” he says.

“I think this is sort of reset for many of us in business and for many people in the industry as well.” “I think there’s going to be a lot of breakthroughs and hopefully you know that leads to healthy debates and also leads to all of us to be more adventurous to try out different things and embrace the future.”