Posts tagged with "Fast Company"

Harvard researchers have designed a cheaper, more efficient air conditioner

August 29, 2022

In China, a searing heat wave has lasted for more than two months and the power grid is straining as people crank up their air-conditioning. The country is one of the places where AC use has been growing the fastest, with a fivefold jump between 2000 and 2017, reports Fast Company.

But as the planet keeps getting hotter, and more people around the world are able to afford air-conditioning, its use is growing everywhere. By the middle of the century, there are likely to be about 5.6 billion of the appliances, and nearly triple the energy demand of cooling today.

“I think the numbers come out to about 10 new air conditioners every second for the next 30 years,” says Jack Alvarenga, a research scientist at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute, and part of a team working on redesigning how homes can be cooled. “That’s an unbelievable number. Just to fathom the amount of cooling demand that’s about to come online in the next couple of decades is concerning.”

The problem is significant both because of the amount of energy that air conditioners require and the fact that current refrigerants, the chemicals that absorb the heat in your AC, are also potent greenhouse gases. (Thanks to the global Kigali Agreement, the worst refrigerants are being phased out, but that will take time.) The more AC is used, the hotter it will get outside. Then people need to use even more air-conditioning, and the cycle continues.

At Harvard, a multidisciplinary team is working on a design for a new type of air-conditioning that uses a fraction of the energy, and uses water instead of ultra-polluting refrigerants. Called ColdSNAP (SNAP stands for “superhydrophobic nano-architecture process”), it incorporates a unique coating also developed at the university.

“A lot of innovative materials are kind of products that want a problem,” says Jonathan Grinham, an architecture professor at the university’s Graduate School of Design and one of the partners on the project. “We call it a technology push. . . . Okay, I have something that has super-unique behavior. So how does it benefit society? Where do we apply this type of technology?”

In this case, the coating repels liquids, inspired by the way duck feathers stay dry. The team realized that if it selectively applied this coating to certain places on ceramic—a material that naturally absorbs moisture—they could use it in a new type of evaporative cooler. Sometimes called swamp coolers, the devices usually only work in dry climates.

The basic concept is simple: If you put hot air in contact with water, the water absorbs heat as it evaporates. It uses 75% less energy than typical air conditioners. But the process of evaporative cooling also creates humidity, and so doesn’t work well in, say, Florida. In the new device, when water evaporates to cool the air, a heat-exchange component made with the coating traps the humidity, and the air flowing into the room is more comfortable.

This month, the researchers started testing it on humid, hot days in the Boston area, at Harvard’s experimental HouseZero, an old house that’s been retrofitted with technology to make it as efficient as possible.

The team hasn’t crunched all of the data yet—but says the technology shows promise for widespread use. “We’re cooling at a much higher efficiency than a typical AC unit, we’re able to achieve a cool temperature, and we’re able to do all that using less water than standards ask for,” says Grinham.

The technology still needs development beyond the initial prototype, and the team will have to show that it can meet certain performance requirements of the manufacturers that might eventually bring it to market.

Consumers might have to also think differently about how they expect air-conditioning to work since this type of device isn’t a dehumidifier. But because it uses so much less energy and is cheaper to make, it could be ideally suited for areas where electricity is expensive and customers can afford a standard air conditioner.

“We need to find the right market, the right consumer,” Grinham says.

Research contact: @FastCompany

These affordable bungalows hearken back to a charming 1900s real estate trend

March 23, 2022

On a formerly vacant city-owned lot in Tempe, Arizona, not far from the campus of Arizona State University, a rare type of housing development has just been built, reports Fast Company.

Unlike the abundant rental housing geared toward the college crowd—or the sprawling single-family homes filling subdivisions across the region—the new project eschews size and profit to offer something almost impossible to find: small homes oriented on a shared lot, surrounding a common courtyard, offered for sale at permanently affordable prices.

The 13-home project is an example of an old way of building, updated for the modern age. Twelve of the houses are identical 600-square-foot, lofted one-bedroom homes. The other is a single-story home that’s compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

All share a central green space, a 900-square-foot common room, and a communal kitchen. Priced for sale to those making less than 80% of the area’s median income, the homes are a throwback to a time when homes didn’t need to be big and expensive.

“The idea of doing a small group of homes around a central courtyard is really a historic way that America grew. And then we got away from it,” says David Crummey, project manager of Newtown CDC, the Tempe-based nonprofit organization that developed the project.

Bungalow courts, or cottage courts, were found in nearly every major city in the early part of the 20th century, but the market has gradually edged away from that compact form of housing. “With the consolidation of the mortgage market and the increase in the number of large subdivisions, small-scale development has really, really fallen off the chart,” Crummey says.

When it comes to for-sale housing that’s affordable, the bungalow court makes a lot of sense, he says. Without the need for an entire expensive lot, or the parking and street access of the typical car-oriented project, houses like these can be built at much lower cost.

For Crummey, whose organization typically does single-family home rehabs to sell to low-income first-time homebuyers, this so-called micro-estate project seemed like a way to do more with less.

The project began in 2015 as a student design exercise. Undergraduate engineering students at ASU were assigned to come up with ideas for housing on city-owned lots, and one project proposed turning this space into a tiny home village. Officials in the city saw the proposal and liked it enough to issue a request for additional proposals.

Newtown CDC pitched a design that prioritized efficient homes in order to keep prices low. It also made the homes part of a community land trust, a nonprofit entity that actually owns the land and creates a sale-like long-term lease of the home to keep its price far below the market rate. The purchasers get a good deal on the homes and share in the proceeds of any future sale, while the nonprofit

continues to steward the property and maintain the affordable prices.

Newtown CDC won the project, and the city donated the land. Crummey partnered with local architectural design firm coLab Studio, whose principal, Matt Salenger, lives in the neighborhood. He says the concept of creating micro estates immediately brought to mind the Tim Burton film Big Fish, which is set in a fictional small town that seems to be almost magically tucked away in a forest.

“The houses are aligned on a main street, but there’s no paving, just grasses and trees,” Salenger says. “David [Crummey] and I had a real connection about trying to make the landscape the thing that was first and foremost there.”

The project they built is reminiscent of that pavement-free community—with a large central open space lined with planters and trees, and small patio spaces between each home that lack any clear lines of ownership, encouraging more social interaction.

The homes themselves are also innovatively designed, with choices guided by keeping costs down while also providing comfortable living space. “Doors and glazing are one of the most expensive aspects of any building. So we limited it to one exterior door. There are four exterior windows. There’s only one interior door, for the bathroom, which is located under the stairs,” Salenger says. “We thought about every single inch.”

The homes have all been sold, each priced at $170,000, except for the ADA-compliant home, which was $210,000. Crummey says the homes were recently appraised at a value of $260,000.

“At the most expensive, it’s a $50,000 below-market sale,” he says. And as part of the community land trust, the homes will continue to be priced below market, no matter when the current owners decide to sell.

“These are unique houses,” Salenger says. “There’s nothing like it in town.”

Research contact: @FastCompany

Razor’s iconic scooter is back. But this time, it’s for grown-ups—and it’s electric

March 2, 2022

Who remembers the original Razor A Kick folding scooter? It arrived in 2000 and, in many ways—just like the phone of nearly the same name—it epitomized Y2K design, reports Fast Company; which gushes about “its colorful hand grips and shiny aluminum frame glint[ing] in the sunlight, hearkening a joyous, technological future.

Indeed, the Razor A Kick became a massive hit that was named Spring/Summer Toy of the Year by the nonprofit Toy Association and sold 5 million units in the first six months.

Two decades later, the kids who loved the Razor scooter are now adults. And so the company is building the toy for them. Starting at $550 on Kickstarter, the Razor Icon is a full-size modern electric scooter that can hit speeds of 20 mph on the street. But visually, everything from its polished aluminum frame to its candy-colored handlebars and tires is inspired by the original Razor.

It might sound obvious: Turn an old toy into a full product, right in time for its original fans to buy it as adults. But Razor has spent 20 years becoming more than its original scooter. Today it sells electric skateboards, e-bikes, go-karts, and three-wheelers.

And its aesthetics are all over the place. You’ll see bikes that hearken back to the ’70s, scooters topped head-to-toe with rainbow LEDs, and dirt bikes with a classic racing look.

“There’s an interesting story behind that [variety],” says Ian Desberg, VP of design and development at Razor. Desberg is a trained toy designer who used to race BMX bikes, and he says Razor is full of people who used to race cars, skateboard, and practice all sorts of other wheeled sports. “You don’t need to be on the design team to influence the products here,” he says.

The Razor Icon was born from a request by Carlton Calvin, the company’s cofounder and president. Calvin pointed out that the electric scooter industry had grown stale. Every design (ranging from scooter rideshares to Razor’s own E Prime line) seemed to be the same old dull black finish. Calvin wanted something different that would stand out—something that wasn’t at first obvious to a company that developed so many different design motifs.

“I walked around for a few days thinking about that challenge from Carlton. As a design team, we’re always looking at the benchmark products, like the Apple iPhone—why is that so successful and iconic?” Desberg says. “It was one of those light bulb moments where we asked ourselves, ‘What is our benchmark, our iPhone at Razor?’ And it dawned on us, it’s the A Kick scooter. We could turn it into an adult scooter so [that] it looks like the one you had as a kid. That would be a head turner!”

The company immediately started making prototypes, building atop its know-how from having released three E Prime scooters already.

The final product, Desberg hopes, is the perfect mix between a premium electric scooter and playful nostalgia. “We love that visual,” Desberg says. “We want a pink-and-silver scooter to be cruising down the street at a good clip, turning heads.”

The Razor Icon is on Kickstarter starting at $550, discounted for launch. Final MSRP will be somewhere under $1,000.

Research contact: @FastCompany

Is the future of soda blue?

February 14, 2022

The vivid blue color of a new brand of Dutch soda doesn’t come from food coloring: The startup making the product, called Ful, makes the drink with spirulina, a blue-green algae, which gives the soda more of a nutritional punch than the standard carbonated beverage, reports Fast Company.

The company wants to use the product to make algae a more popular dietary ingredient, in order to help shrink the carbon footprint of the food system.

The founders, who met as students at the Singapore campus of the business school INSEAD (a French acronym that translates to European Institute of Business Administration), spent months exploring ways to speed up the global shift to net zero emissions before settling on blue-green microalgae. “What I think particularly caught our imagination was how efficient it is at transforming CO2 into nutrients and oxygen,” says Julia Streuli, one of Ful’s three cofounders.

Per kilogram of protein produced, beef has a carbon footprint of around 500 kilograms; soy has a carbon footprint of around 20 kilograms. But algae quickly takes up CO2 as it grows; and in a lifecycle analysis, the startup calculated that in its own production process—which uses CO2 captured from industry—its spirulina takes in more carbon than the total process emits, giving a carbon footprint of negative 1.5 kilograms.

What’s more, algae also doesn’t need arable land to grow and doesn’t require pesticides, fertilizer, or the huge amounts of fresh water used to produce most food.

Beyond protein, it’s a source of nutrients like iron, vitamin C, magnesium, and antioxidants like chlorophyll—all of which can be found in the soda, which the company hopes will appeal to a wellness-focused clientele. Still, it isn’t yet widely used outside the supplement aisle at health food stores. “Very few people were focusing on the demand-gen side—how you make this product appealing to final consumers,” Streuli says. The flavor and smell can be unappetizing. It also doesn’t look great. “If you try to pasteurize it, which a lot of foods need for longer shelf life, the green color turns to very unappetizing brown,” she says.

Just before graduation, the founders won a business plan competition for their concept of a new spirulina-based brand. “It basically gave us enough money to justify turning down our corporate jobs,” Streuli says, and the team moved to the Netherlands to begin working with food scientists to deal with the challenges that they saw holding the ingredient back.

In doing so, the founders developed a patented new way to process the algae to extract the best-tasting parts. Their new ingredient “has a little bit of a saltiness, but it doesn’t have the fishy off-taste of spirulina,” she says. “It’s quite pleasant, and it pairs very well with other flavors.”

The extraction process also makes it a particularly bright shade of turquoise, which comes from the chlorophyll in the algae. The company decided to embrace the odd color, rather than trying to hide it. “If you’re describing that color to a friend in five years, I want you to say, ‘Oh, that’s Ful colored,’” Streuli says. (The ingredient also can be used in food; it’s not clear yet whether consumers who might be willing to drink a Gatorade-like soda will also want to eat blue-tinged granola bars.)

The first limited runs of the new soda, in flavors like peach and lemon ginger, were made in a Dutch brewery. Because breweries also produce food-grade CO2, the bioreactors growing the algae also could eventually capture that CO2 to feed the algae.

“Then you have this really wonderful closed-loop system that could be highly localized, but also scalable all over the world, using existing infrastructure,” she says.

Right now, most algae is grown with bicarbonate rather than captured CO2, but the company wants to use a process with the lowest emissions possible. The team also is working on details like packaging; the first production runs were sold in the glass bottles used by the brewery, but the company is switching to aluminum cans to lower its footprint further. And a future product, in powdered form, will have even more minimal packaging.

For now, the soda is only available in Europe and the U.K., but the brand hopes to expand to the United States later this year. Other startups also are emerging in the space, lincluding  We Are the New Farmers, a company that makes frozen spirulina cubes for smoothies from algae grown in an indoor farm in Brooklyn.

Research contact: @FastCompany

A new mixed-income housing complex near San Francisco comes with its own farm

September 29, 2021

Have you ever wanted to live on a farm, but without having to do all of the hard work or needing to drive an hour to reach a major city?

In San Francisco, a mixed-income apartment complex has gone up in the neighborhood of Santa Clara that comes with its own 1.5-acre farm, managed by a professional urban farming company, which also welcomes help from residents, Good News Network reports.

The Agrihood building consists of 361 units—181 of which are priced below market rate. Specifically, 10% are reserved for moderate income renters, and 165 for low-income seniors and veterans. The complex also comprises 30 townhomes and features a central 1.5-acre organic farm that can produce 20,000 pounds of food every year.

Each week the produce is brought to an on-site location and sold at a deep discount for residents. The full list of produce is posted on Agrihood’s website, and includes superfoods, comfort foods, orchards, perennial foods, and native foods.

“Our goal throughout this endeavor has been to provide the affordable housing that we urgently need in Santa Clara through a truly creative, community-driven process,” says the brochure.

“Not only are we providing a really unique living experience for the residents that live on the property, but we’re also taking a very deliberate approach to encouraging the health and wellness of our residents by incorporating the farm, hopefully, into their daily and weekly lifestyles,” Vince Cantore, who is vice-president of Core Companies, the firm leading the Agrihood project, told Fast Company recently.

Attempting to address the housing shortage in San Francisco, Agrihood is actually built on the site of what used to be one of the many orchards that covered Santa Clara in decades past.

Urban farming and gardening are growing in popularity, with some cities, parks, or neighborhoods attempting to include community gardens, forest gardens, or urban farms into development plans.

It’s a critical way that urban areas can increase food security, reduce the carbon footprint that food racks up during transportation, and increase access to healthy food for low-income communities in food deserts.

Research contact: @goodnewsnetwork

OpenHome aims to make custom-designed houses for the 99%

September 20, 2021

What could be better than a custom-designed home? It can be planned precisely to fulfill any whim or wish, with an architect standing by to turn customers’ visions into bespoke built form.

But one other thing also comes with custom houses–a huge price tag. That is, until now.

OpenHomea new joint venture between the architecture firms  KieranTimberlake  and  Lake|Flato and the prefabricated-home builder Bensonwood—is dedicated to creating a more accessible custom-home option, reports Fast Company.

By combining prefabricated elements with architect-guided custom design treatments, the system brings true dream-home design into the hands (and budgets) of the less than rich. . The design system can halve the time it would take to build a fully customized home, and can bring down the cost significantly.

Philadelphia-based KieranTimberlake, San Antonio-based Lake|Flato, and Walpole, New Hampshire-based Bensonwood came together in 2018 to develop the concept and began taking on design projects in the spring of 2020.

Working with an architect, homebuyers can define the spatial layout of their house and the types of rooms it will have by combining clusters from the OpenHome library. The pieces can be combined in a variety of shapes from narrow to wide; single- to double-story; in straight lines, perpendicular arrangements, or with interior courtyards.

Sun and seasonal modeling provide a sense for how the light will change in each room throughout the course of the year, and also will help fine-tune the construction needs to ensure the home meets the high insulation requirements of the Passive House standard.

Based on the client’s wishes, windows can be moved or enlarged, walls can be lengthened, and rooflines can be adjusted. Within three months, a design can be finalized.

“It’s a really effective tool for being able to operate at this pace,”  KieranTimberlake’s Matt Krissel, project lead for OpenHome, recently told Fast Company.  “And acknowledging that a lot of people don’t actually understand floorplans or building sections, being able to model and walk people virtually through from early design really enhances our ability to get feedback.”

As the design gets closer to being finalized, the virtual reality tool is also used to help select the finishes for each room, from bathroom tiles to roofing materials.

Once the design is set, Bensonwood takes about two months to fabricate the panels in its factory. It also coordinates the building permit and work with a local contractor to begin laying the foundation and preparing for the on-site installation.

The first home KieranTimberlake designed through the OpenHome process is now under construction in New Hampshire. Krissel says each of the partners in the joint venture has at least one OpenHome project in the works. KieranTimberlake is starting work on a second design and aims to be able to take on three to five per year to start.

“The goal is to be able to do these in less than a year, if [clients] can actually make all the decisions this fast,” Krissel says. “It’s a bit idealized, but the goal is that it’s substantially faster from beginning to end.”

The system brings architect-designed homes within reach of clients without the budget for a fully custom home. It also brings new opportunities to architects. “Now,” Krissel says, “we can say yes to projects that don’t have that luxury of a time frame or budget.”

Research contact: @FastCompany

A study that might give you ‘paws’: The talents of left-handed v. right-handed dogs

September 6 2021

In the human world, there’s a growing body of scholarship around “handedness”—and any possible link to superior talent, intellect, or athleticism. Are some of us more fated for success, solely based on which hand our five-year-old selves used to pick up a writing utensil?

Scientists have scoured nearly every corner of the brain for answers, but results are still relatively inconclusive—and so, Boston-based Embark, a canine genetic-testing company, decided to take a closer look at another species, Fast Company reports.

Are some dogs more destined to be superstars? What is that je ne sais quoi that drives a dog to become an excellent lifeguard, bomb sniffer, or search-and-rescue hero? Does it have anything to do with handedness (um, pawed-ness)? Seeking answers, researchers began by studying the talented canines of the dog Olympics: the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show

.A team from Embark corralled 105 dogs who participated in Westminster’s weekend of championships and ran them through a series of tests to determine paw dominance. Its chief barometer was the “step test,” which identifies which paw a dog first uses when starting to walk from a standing or sitting state, or to step over a strategically placed stick. (Other tests observed which direction a dog turns within a crate, or which paw it uses to wipe a piece of tape from its nose.)

Of the dogs, the team found a majority were right-pawed: 63%, or 29 out of 46 dogs who competed in the masters agility obstacle course, preferred their right paw; as well as 61%, or 36 out of 59 dogs, who competed in the flagship show.

But that doesn’t mean right-pawed dogs reign supreme. Embark’s results are actually in line with those of a recent study, which found that right-pawed dogs make up roughly 58% of the dog population overall—meaning their representation within Westminster’s dog Olympics is quite proportional. Just as with humans, more dogs favor the right side—and in terms of talent, there’s no clear winner between the tribes.

Embark’s results did point to potential differences in pawed-ness between breeds: After the dogs were sorted into Herding, Terrier, and Retriever categories, data showed that 36% of both herders and terriers were left-pawed, while a sizable 72% of retrievers were left-pawed. However, researchers caution that the pool of retrievers was the smallest of all the breeds (only 11 dogs total), meaning more data would be needed to verify this finding.

But overall, we’d call the inconclusiveness here comforting. In the end, in terms of talents and personalities, the old saw is true: Every dog has his day.

Research contact: FastCompany

Big ideas: Old Navy overhauls how it designs for and markets to the plus-size consumer

August 20, 2021

For decades, fashion brands have been focused on thin consumers. That’s started to slowly shift over the past few years, thanks to designers like Christian Siriano and models like Ashley Graham. But still, the needs of the plus-size consumer are from mainstream, and the shopping experience is often marginalized, reports Fast Company.

Old Navy is trying to change that, by radically reimagining its approach to how plus-size clothes are designed, manufactured, and displayed. Starting on Friday, August 20, the company is making it possible for customers to shop sizes 0 to 30 in exactly the same way. That means no more plus-size styles or special sections: All its offerings will be made for all sizes and will be featured in the same displays.

.“This is the biggest launch since the brand was founded [in 1994],” says Nancy Green, Old Navy’s CEO. “It will involve every touchpoint at the brand, from marketing to stores to how we design clothes.”

There isn’t a good reason why fashion companies have separate plus-size and straight-size divisions. It’s an accident of history. Old Navy, for instance, began making plus-size clothes in 2004 and launched an entirely new business unit that catered to this customer.

Across the market, many brands have separate plus-size departments that churn out different styles and work with different factories that specialize in tailoring for plus-size bodies. “That’s the way that everyone always did it,” says Alison Partridge Stickney, Old Navy’s head of Women’s Merchandising, who helped spearhead the company’s new initiative. “It’s not the most compelling answer, I realize.”

Ans, Fast Company points out, even though women size 14 and up make up more than half the market, the industry overwhelmingly focuses on serving the needs of straight-size women.

Research firm NPD found that women’s plus-size clothing only makes up 19% of apparel, which means this customer is profoundly underserved.

Recently, however, there’s been a movement in the fashion industry to create clothing collections that encompass all sizes. One of the most notable players is Universal Standard, a premium brand founded in 2015 that offers sizes 00 to 40 for all garments in its collection.

But when Fast Company spoke with the brand’s founders as they were launching, they said how difficult it was to find designers and factories that were skilled at creating well-fitting pieces across a broad size range, precisely because the industry has been so bifurcated for so long. Over the past few years, several brands have followed Universal Standard’s lead, but manufacturing practices in the fashion industry have been slow to change.

High-end denim brand Good American, which launched in 2016, makes each of its styles in sizes 00 to 32, but when it partnered with Nordstrom in 2017, the retailer wanted to separate the brand’s larger sizes into a separate section of the store. It was only after the founders insisted on keeping the collection together that Nordstrom complied, and the strategy worked so well that Nordstrom began integrating plus-size clothes across the store, while also keeping its separate plus-size department.

All of these examples reveal how hard it is to rewrite the rule of the fashion industry. Four years ago, when Old Navy began surveying its customers and carrying out focus groups, it realized how terrible plus-size shoppers felt when they tried to buy clothing. They described how they had a tiny selection compared to straight-size women and how embarrassed they were to be relegated to a small subsection of the store.

“Every woman we talked to had a story,” says Stickney. “One mom in Miami told me she had this vision of the wonderful experience of shopping with her daughter when she grew up; but when the time came, they couldn’t shop at the same stores.”

It was clear to the brand that they had to change the way they did business, but it was also clear that integrating their straight- and plus-size departments would be an enormous undertaking. From a design perspective, Stickney was tasked with making sure that every garment Old Navy makes came in a full spectrum of sizes.

Typically, brands create a style and fit it on a size 8 model, then incrementally shrink or expand it proportionally so it fits larger and smaller sizes. For instance, to go from size 8 to size 10, you might increase the sleeves and torso of a shirt by an inch. But this approach doesn’t work as you get into larger sizes, since bodies don’t expand incrementally in every direction. If you kept increasing the sleeve length from size 8 to size 40, the sleeves would be so long, they’d end up on the floor. And since people carry weight differently, creating pieces that fit a wide range of plus-size consumers comfortably can be tricky.

Old Navy decided to change its entire technical design process. In 2018, it partnered with Susan Sokoloski, a professor of Product Design at the University of Oregon, to create software that would properly fit each style across the size range.

With Sokoloski, Old Navy’s Design Department scanned 389 women, then created 3D avatars that they could use to create patterns. The company then worked with its factory partners to learn this new sizing system, and cut and sew garments appropriately.

“This technology gave us a more realistic view of what the body looks like at each size,” says Emily Bibick, customer lead and merchandizing expert at Old Navy. “It allowed us to really pay attention to things like the placement of a pocket or buttons, or the length of a zipper. This allowed us to make sure that the product would fit well on every single body.”

It took two years to get this new system off the ground. But this year, Old Navy customers will finally experience the fruits of the labor. Every style in the fall collection will come in sizes 0 to 30, or XS to 4X. And there’s no price difference based on size.

Research contact: @Fast Company

Most employee monitoring tools are needlessly invasive, study finds

August 19, 202

A study has found that 75% of the most popular work surveillance tools can capture your screen—and nearly half of them can record every keystroke, reports Fast Company.

And , if an employer installs time- or attendance-tracking software on your computer, that software can probably spy on you in lots of other ways as well.

The study, conducted by the resume-help site StandOut CV, compared the data collection features in 32 of the most popular employee monitoring tools. The researchers found that 75% of these tools can record employees’ screens and monitor which apps or websites they’re using, while 59% can monitor keyboard and mouse movements. Nearly half of those tools can run in a stealth mode, allowing employers to deploy the software on company-owned computers without workers’ knowledge.

The companies behind this software—including Hubstaff, Time Doctor, Teramind, and Interguard—say their businesses have boomed during the pandemic. StandOut CV’s study quantifies just how invasive this software has become across the board as vendors compete to offer the most comprehensive monitoring features.

Whether those tactics do more good than harm is up for debate. Research has shown that monitoring can work well if employers are transparent about why they’re doing it, and if employees feel it will improve their work.

Conversely, invasive monitoring can lead to tension and burnout, and it can erode workers’ motivations to put in extra effort for a company. Monitoring software can also create privacy issues if employers slurp up personal data; and it can be a form of discrimination if managers use it to target specific workers.

It also might just be the wrong way to keep tabs on employees in a fully remote environment. Instead of just tracking the time and effort that goes in, companies might be better off looking at the work that comes out.

Research contact: @FastCompany

Garment worker: MIT is developing a robot that can help elderly people get dressed

July 14, 2021

A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed a robotic arm that can slide one arm of a vest onto a person. And that’s more impressive than it may initially seem, Fast Company reports.

It represents an early, but important, step in creating a robot that is completely dress an aging or disabled person—safely and gently handling painful, stiff, and bent joints, and other problems that affect the elderly .

Robots have actually been able to dress themselves for a decade now. Such an achievement is possible only because a robot knows the dimensions of its own body and exactly what it intends to do next. For a robot to dress someone else is an entirely different challenge—because the task requires it to intuit someone else’s next move, lest the robot make an error that might twist a wrist or dislocate an elbow.

“In this work, we focus on a planning technique,” explains Shen Li, a PhD candidate in the Interactive Robotics Group at MIT and the author of the new paper published by Science and Systems. “Robots predict human motion; then, design a plan that’s safe based upon the prediction. If I dress a kid or adult, they might have different reactions. So you have to predict what they’ll do.”

This prediction, in the human brain, is an invisible process. We don’t fully understand how a person approaches a situation like sliding a shirtsleeve onto another human.

Li and his collaborators took a stock robot arm and fit it with a 3D tracker, which can see the movement of the person waiting to be dressed. Their breakthrough is in the software, which not only recognizes someone’s position in the moment, but considers how they might move next—in order to successfully get them dressed, and not injure them in the process.

To anticipate one of, say, 100 different possible movements, the system “learns to” predict the 100 possible movements first; and create a path that ensures a person’s safety, no matter how they actually move.

“We’re not only predicting the most likely human movement, but the entire uncertain human set of the future,” Li told Fast Company—noting that this is an especially conservative approach that can mean you are getting dressed at a snail’s pace.

However, over time, the software learns from the person getting dressed. It can slowly disregard movements a person never makes—editing down the possible list to something more probable and practical.

For the next steps of research, Li would like to add a full sleeve to the vest, and develop the software to accommodate for the extra friction of pulling a garment onto an appendage. After that step is figured out, pulling on a second sleeve, or a pair of pants, will be easier.

The other big shortcoming in this research is that the current robot starts with a human fist already pulled through a sleeve hole, so the team would like to solve that issue, too—dressing a human from the earliest steps in the process. Li notes that nurses will often take a person’s hand and stick it through a sleeve, hinting that ultimately, a second robot arm could make this task a lot easier.

These may sound like baby steps of development, in a world where machine learning models seem to solve massive problems like computer vision and object recognition overnight. “How do you develop an algorithm to learn [human behavior] efficiently?” Li asks. “You can’t just have a human there doing the task [a million times].’”

Research contact: @FastCompany