Source: Microsoft

Current smartphone-based exposure notification systems (ENS) like the one created jointly by Apple and Google are a clever way of leveraging modern technology to support comprehensive contact tracing efforts by health agencies worldwide. But the COVID-19 pandemic is not what anyone had in mind when the Bluetooth standard was created, so the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) is working to create a new specification that would allow wearable devices to work in tandem with smartphones to expand the reach of ENS tech.

That would mean that devices like wristworn smartwatches and activity/health trackers could also participate in systems that track potential exposure and provide notifications about potential COVID-19 contact events. It may seem like a small tweak if you assume that most smartphone users are seldom without those devices, but Bluetooth SIG points out that expanding to wearables could help include groups of people who aren’t typically smartphone users – including young, school-aged children, and older adults in care facilities – in ENS efforts.

You could easily see how that would be useful, once this new spec is completed and incorporated into deployed Bluetooth standards. Schools could potential mandate use of simple, cheap Bluetooth-enabled wearables to track potential exposure as they return to physical classroom education, for instance.

It’s too early to say exactly how and when this will be deployed – the Bluetooth SIG says that it plans to have an initial draft of the new spec available “in the next few months” for its members to review. But the group has powerful members including Apple, Microsoft, Intel and others, and the technology proposed would allow Apple and Google to incorporate wearables into their existing exposure notification platform, while preserving the privacy-protecting aspects of the tech, as illustrated in the infographic below.

Bluetooth SIG works to include wearables in COVID-19 exposure notification systems