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Design Food Tech & Society The Pandemic

The Thriving Do-Not-Touch Economy

In 2020 fortunes are being made with inventions that let you keep your distance. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in retail, education, health, or fitness, among many others. “Do Not Touch” is this year’s revenue battle cry.

6 Feet of Separation

If you didn’t know what 6 feet looked like before, you sure as hell do now.  And just in case you’re still not sure, a bevy of gadgets will help, from ultra-low-tech rubber tube bumper tables to the digital SafeSpacer, a wearable bracelet that vibrates or sounds when someone else wearing one gets up in your grill.

Machine Mangia

Have you abandoned your “no eating in the car” rule?  Do-not-touch dining experiences continue to innovate. Saladworks and Chowbotics teamed up to offer a 7-ingredient salad of your choosing, mixed up and spit out via vending machine (left). With estimates that ⅔ of NYC’s restaurants won’t last through the pandemic, one enterprising company is giving the mid-century Automat a facelift, aiming for 500 new automated franchises across North America. It’s starting with an automated dumpling shop.  And who doesn’t salivate at the thought of Flippy from Miso Robotics making sure your local White Castle has the perfect steamed burger. Perhaps they will buy their meat from the very popular vending-machine butchers at Applestones.

Robotics and vending machines are the pandemic’s answer to the challenge of a no-touch meal.  Read more about the economics behind vending-machine retailing at The Hustle.

Solo Workouts

Peloton and Lululemon have soared during the pandemic, catering to gym rats who find themselves banned from their favorite classes and machines. Lululemon bought Mirror, the $1500  gym-in-a-home (and that’s before you pay the membership fee) that beams every fitness workout you’d ever want to your home while it analyzes and tracks your moves. As shutdowns and reduced capacity rules went into effect, physical gyms realized they had an expanded audience in the virtual world. The fiterati are flocking to Zoom’s new marketplace, YouTube, and healthy living sites like PopSugar,  giving them access to an ever-expanding world of fitness workouts from the comfort of home.

Travel Different

To the chagrin of local neighbors everywhere, services like Airbnb report that leisure travelers aren’t flocking to cities, but rather to more remote urban and suburban areas, repositioning its service and, according to the company, revitalizing rural travel. “It’s less about travel and more about living”, says Airbnb’s trend report for travel 2021. (In its IPO filing, the company said, perhaps more controversially, “the lines between travel and living are blurring.”) Staycations, travelling in pods, and decamping to isolated locales from treehouses to mountain top cabins have all replaced more traditional city travel destinations.

DIY Home Health Care

Telehealth during the pandemic amounted to little more than a HIPPA compliant Zoom call. Now companies like Tytocare and Medwand, are offering in-home diagnostics that allow consumers to monitor their vitals and ship them off remotely to their medical practitioners.

Virtual Events Business Investments

Nowhere has the bar risen faster than in the world of virtual events. According to Bizzabo, 80% of marketers this year have been able to reach wider audiences and increase their ROI by hosting virtual events, amazingly. At least 120 new virtual event platforms rose from the pandemic, with overnight superstars like Hopin, Hublio and Run the World scoring big investments. (Hopin, which only had 8 employees as recently as March, saw its private company valuation soar to $2 billion.)

Learning

Zoom–one of the year’s most spectacular business success stories–has made no secret about the importance of education to its strategy.  It hired Anne Keehan  to head its global education effort, making sure its tools serve educators needs.  New companies like Engagli offer tailor-made remote education platforms. Michael Chasen, who earlier created Blackboard, an early and successful remote-learning platform for higher education, just won $16.5 million investment for ClassEDU, an educational platform based on Zoom.

The Dirt on Money

The use of peer-to-peer money transfer apps like Venmo, CashApp, and Zelle rose more than 11% during the pandemic signaling a newfound comfort with bypassing cash, credit cards or other traditional payment methods like writing checks. Credit card companies like Amex and Visa are touting contactless credit cards, eliminating the need to insert or swipe.  MagicCube.co can turn every phone into a point-of-sale terminal and OVLoop Valet created a multi-card digital wallet. Are you one of the folks who hasn’t spent that $20 bill you had in your pocket or purse at the start of the pandemic?

Virtual Try-On, Homes and More

The makeup users among us have grown so accustomed to virtual try-ons that a trip to Bobbi Brown or MAC cosmetics is as easy as sitting in front of your device’s camera and swiping through an assortment of lipsticks and foundations until you’ve hit the perfect match. It’s the Tinder of makeup experiences.

Even our homes have become touchless sanctuaries. The list of Alexa-enabled home appliances enables less touching and more talking, ostensibly a more germ-free way to run the home. Having tried many of them, from my Moen faucet to my Mitsubishi HVAC (worst app integration ever) to my Philips lightbulbs to FireTV, I can tell you that a voice-enabled home yields surprising, and often irritating, results.

Is this a Fad or Forever?

The convenience of a contactless world is not to be underestimated. And more and more, these newly-efficient contactless solutions don’t require endless hours in front of a computer screen.  Proximity sensing, voice, NFC, 5G, sensors, and the cloud are just some of the enabling technologies that make it all possible. Vaccines and drug treatments notwithstanding, most experts agree we’re not getting back to our old hugging, hand-shaking, and hanging out selves until well into 2021.  But by then, life will have immutably and irrevocably turned into less of a contact sport.

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