The coronavirus is creating weird new business opportunities, from robots to anti-spitting hats

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The outbreak of the novel coronavirus is crashing global markets and affecting everything from air travel to the film industry to local businesses. Still, some companies stand to benefit somehow from this outbreak, which has now spread to scores of countries and infected more than 100,000 people. They include firms that sell deep-cleaning products, remote services like Peloton and Zoom, and, of course, the hand sanitizer company Purell.

But the sellers of some lesser-known products also seem to view the coronavirus as a unique business opportunity. These companies are pushing the idea that gadgets like air purifiers, robots, and even spit-shielding hats could be helpful in combating the virus. While some of these vendors are actively promoting the link between their products and Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, other companies say consumers are making the connection themselves and seeking out their products.

Like face masks, some unusual products might be useful for health care workers on the front lines of this outbreak but probably aren’t meant for the average healthy person. So, in the interest of making sense of this reality, we rounded up some of the weirdest ways companies are seeking to benefit from the novel coronavirus.

Robot sellers see the coronavirus as a chance to broadcast their bots’ abilities

Some robots are lending a helping hand in the battle against the coronavirus, facilitating conversation between infected patients and hospital staff and delivering necessities, including medication. But at least one robot vendor has used the outbreak to push the abilities of its “service robot,” an automaton that can be programmed to answer questions, quiz people on their health, and give tours.

Recently, Philadelphia-based Promobot deployed one of its robots in Times Square, as Reuters reported. The robot, which has also been seen in New York City’s Bryant Park, essentially quizzes people to see if they have the symptoms of the coronavirus. At one point, the robot was also, apparently, handing out face masks, even though health authorities have urged healthy people not to use them.

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The robot was eventually kicked out of Bryant Park, though the company says as many as 30 people a day still interact with the device, which is now sitting in a New York-based office (Promobot didn’t say how those people actually get to the robot). Still, the company says it has since received interest in the robot from an airport, a museum, and other “crowded places.” Interacting with the robot appears to require using a tablet, which means lots of people touching a surface that could potentially transmit a virus. That’s less than optimal during the outbreak of a highly contagious disease.

The coronavirus may also be motivating some companies to move toward automation faster than expected. CNBC reported that some companies appear less susceptible to coronavirus setbacks because they’re already significantly automated, while the Israel-based warehouse automation company Caja Robotics told Recode it has seen a 25-30 percent increase in inbound inquiries about its technology in the past month. According to the company, many potential customers are looking to make their production capabilities more immune to disruption caused by events like the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Some air purifier companies are making misleading claims about their products

Back in 2003, the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about websites selling personal air purifiers, among other products, that claimed to prevent the spread of SARS. Now, history seems to be repeating itself with some air purifier manufacturers floating the idea their systems can neutralize the novel coronavirus. Others say they’ve started tests to see if their devices might be useful against the virus.

The air purifier manufacturer Airpura, for instance, has been advertising that at least one of its devices can “remove the coronavirus from your airstream.” (The company did not respond to a request for comment.) At least one online platform, the air treatment e-commerce site Sylvane, has also promoted the idea that such purifiers might be useful.

One of the founders of the air purifier company Molekule made some lofty claims about his technology to a local news outlet. “I am very confident that this technology will destroy coronavirus,” Dr. Yogi Goswami told a Tampa Bay CBS affiliate. “Although we have not tested it on that virus itself, we have tested it on viruses of that type,”

At the same time, Molekule’s $800 air purifier has been flagged by advertising watchdogs for making unsubstantiated claims about its product. Wirecutter called the Molekule “the worst air purifier [it’s] ever tested.”

Air purifiers can certainly be useful for health care facilities, but their utility for the average person in fighting the coronavirus is probably low, according to a BuzzFeed report. But even if this technology does work, these devices are still much more expensive that the CDC’s very simple recommendations for preventing the spread of the coronavirus: wash your hands often, don’t touch your face, and avoid crowded spaces if you’re sick.

Companies want to cash in on putting thermal scanning everywhere

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, some companies are moving quickly to integrate or advertise their existing thermal imaging capabilities. The technology scans a person from afar and estimates what their temperature is, so some think these systems could spot fevers and ultimately infected persons. We’ve already seen this integrated into facial recognition cameras in China, but now it’s showing up elsewhere.

ThirdEye claims its augmented reality glasses can be fitted with thermal imaging to make this process more seamless. The company says it has received about 2,000 orders related to the coronavirus outbreak and will ship the devices within the next month and a half.

Some of ThirdEye’s recent orders are meant to be used by airport workers at Hong Kong International Airport. The idea is that the AR glasses equipped with the thermal scanning feature could automatically tell airport officials if someone has an elevated temperature. The glasses could also broadcast those imaging feeds directly to doctors who can advise those workers.

“They’re moving thousands of people every day, and our glasses provide a hands-free use case for them where previously they were using this really expensive medical machine that provided an accurate thermal scan,” ThirdEye’s chief executive Nick Cherukuri told Recode. “Our glasses provide both telehealth presence as well as thermal scanning.”

Thermal imaging tech is also being explored by transportation companies. Shouqi Limousine & Chauffeur, a Chinese car service company, is adding infrared thermal imaging technology inside some of its vehicles. The company explained in a press release that the cameras can track the temperatures of drivers and passengers. If an observed temperature is high, a warning is generated, and that’s fed into a system that makes a “judgment based on big data and AI algorithms.”

The rearview mirror inside a limousine equipped with infrared thermal imaging. Shouqi Limousine

The list of companies pushing thermal imaging products goes on, although it’s sometimes unclear how effective any of these products might be at combating the outbreak. Hawkeye Systems, for example, sells an AI-powered bodycam tool with thermal imaging, and its chief operating officer Colby Marshall told Recode that the company has asked for feedback from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to see if such tech might be useful. Marshall did not specify exactly what those discussions involved.

The coronavirus is motivating a surge in high-tech disinfectant devices

The novel coronavirus has had some consumers looking for tools to disinfect their surrounding areas, including high-tech electrostatic spray guns. While you might normally have disinfectant sprayed from a bottle, these types of guns make use of charged particles to ensure that a substance fully covers a surface.

Some companies are now marketing these guns in response to the coronavirus. A couple of them — one called Emist and another called EFS Clean — are being used in health care facilities in Singapore and by school officials in Utah. One person on LinkedIn showed how he used one to disinfect his seat on an airplane.

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Jeremiah Gray, the COO of EarthSafe, a biodegradable chemicals company selling one of these systems, told Recode that demand right now is 100 times greater than it normally is during flu season, and explained that these devices are usually purchased by offices, schools, and transit authorities. Gray says the company is also getting interest from people looking for these devices for their own homes, including parents at preschools and those who see that the sprayers being used at places like LegoLand.

“They’re finding us everywhere, right now,” he told Recode. “It’s become now a national dialogue, both within peoples’ homes as well as within peoples’ offices and businesses.”

E-commerce sellers are pushing “anti-spitting” hats and other weird products to block the coronavirus

Aside from the growing number of gadgets being marketed during the coronavirus outbreak, there are also some strange low-tech products drawing attention. On Amazon, for example, you’ll find a slew of new listings for hats that come fitted with protective “screens” that are meant to block someone spitting or sneezing into your face. There are baseball hats with screens, sun hats with screens, and even visors with screens. The premise seems to be that the coronavirus, which can spread through droplets, will be blocked by the device.

Some of these hat listings, however, are being taken down. Amazon has removed more than a million products that claim to be effective against the coronavirus. This listing for an “anti drool anti COVID-19 virus cap,” for instance, is no longer active. Some listings that don’t mention the coronavirus still appear to work:

This coronavirus anti-spitting “protective hat” is a “2020 Trend Hat.”

On Etsy, coronavirus-themed products have also become a weird micromarket. Several sellers are now marketing T-shirts with coronavirus-related images, while some are plastered with reminders to “wash your hands.” Many of these listings remain up despite Etsy also cracking down on products being sold related to Covid-19. This morning, Recode found an “I Survived Coronavirus” cuff, merchandise tagged with “Don’t Cough on Me,” and a coronavirus-themed mug all available for purchase.

“I survived Coronavirus” bracelet that’s available on Esty.

Meanwhile on Craigslist, you can find sellers pushing products that are meant to deal with the outbreak, including a seller of an air purifier that can help “fight and trap coronavirus,” and another offering a Covid-19-inspired “emergency bug-out bag[s].” Some Craiglist sellers are also using coronavirus as a marketing opportunity. There are people selling shipping containers, a resistance bike-pedal exercise machine, and someone selling a car that they say allows you to “[k]eep the Coronavirus out with windows up and sunroof closed but moonroof engaged.”

A shipping container that a Craiglist poster suggests might be useful during a “coronavirus quarantine.”

And, of course, you’ll find lots and lots of masks. Why not buy a mask? Well, according to the CDC, masks are primarily helpful for sick people who are exhibiting symptoms and don’t want to risk spreading the illness. There’s also serious concern that mass demand could ultimately create a shortage of masks, which are desperately needed by health care workers who must frequently interact with sick people, including those diagnosed with Covid-19.

Ultimately, coronavirus-inspired products are a reminder that some companies always stand to benefit during a global crisis. In the case of this current pandemic, Netflix will entertain people stuck at home, and video platforms like Zoom will power businesses whose work can be done remotely. Meanwhile, all sort of disinfectant companies, like Clorox and Purell, will benefit from companies and customers eager to stay clean and cut down on the spread of the virus.

But we must also keep in mind that people eager to protect themselves from the coronavirus will search for other products to help, regardless of whether or not those products are actually useful. Now more than ever, it’s vital that we remember that some companies pushing these goods are just hoping to make a quick buck by exploiting people’s fears.

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