It’s already been said: 2020 was a rollercoaster. We were in and out of lockdown, stressing over our mental health, and learning about one social injustice after another. At Big Human, we create digital products that make our lives easier so we appreciate tech that does the same. From entertainment that kept us distracted to health systems that kept us safe, here are the top innovations that made 2020 just a little more bearable, in different ways. Many are evolutions of pre-existing technology, made suddenly more relevant due to the circumstances of the pandemic. First, let’s tip our hats to the greatest innovation of all: the vaccines. And with that out of the way, here’s a look at the many roles tech played - both large and small - to get us through 2020.
We’ll start easy. Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released in March of 2020, the earliest weeks of the pandemic. If you didn’t already have a Nintendo Switch, this game probably convinced you to buy one. It’s a two-in-one. You could either spend time alone, creating a personal island, or island hop to visit friends. Some players even planned in-game birthday parties as substitutes for in-person celebrations. It delivered a fun and lighthearted way to stay connected virtually, while maintaining social distancing.
In April of 2020, in a rare partnership, Apple and Google developed the Exposure Notifications System to combat the pandemic through contact tracing. Exposure Notifications is a framework that quickly informs people of exposure to the virus, and susceptibility to infection. This technology helped us track our own health, and monitor (or avoid) places that had huge gatherings and upticks in coronavirus reports.
This one actually launched in late 2019, but with quarantine creating more time for it, accessible gaming became more relevant than we could have predicted. The Logitech G Adaptive Gaming Kit is a set of 12 customizable buttons and triggers that work with the XBox Adaptive Controller, to make it easier for players with disabilities to control their devices. As accessibility advocates in general, we appreciated this one in particular.
The 2020 NBA championship was definitely different, and it was only possible by the Oura Ring. The product was upgraded specifically for the NBA, which purchased 2,000 units in July, for players to wear during their time in the bubble. Its sensors track biometric data, which in turn created a “Risk Score” to detect players displaying potential COVID-19 indicators. This proactive approach and smart application of wearable tech helped the NBA go an entire season without a case. Watching the playoffs and championship created a small sense of “normalcy” for sports fans everywhere — something we all needed.
We know, we know. QR codes were invented centuries ago (actually, 1994). But if you left the house during 2020, you probably encountered one, and it probably made something a little easier to do. Over the years, they’ve had a wide range of use cases, from tracking supply chains to customer engagement with ad campaigns. Then came 2020: the year frictionless interaction became a matter of health, not just convenience. Most of us rediscovered them while scanning menus in outdoor dining situations, but they were also used by schools for daily health checks, and to sign in at vaccine sites. Just to be clear: we’re not saying QR codes are new. Or cool. We’re simply noting the role they played during (and after) 2020, and that we probably haven’t seen the end of them.
Similar to QR codes suddenly finding themselves during 2020, thermal cameras also stepped into the spotlight. The Honeywell ThermoRebellion uses infrared imaging and artificial intelligence to read body temperature in seconds, efficiently screening visitors for elevated skin temperatures, which can be a potential COVID-19 indicator. This is extremely helpful at entry points into high-traffic places like airports, factories and distribution centers, to manage spread. The technology was deployed to JFK airport in November, and following a positive experience has expanded to Boston Logan International Airport.
VR gaming inched closer to the mainstream thanks to last October’s release of the Oculus Quest 2. And it couldn’t have appeared at a better time, allowing us to travel to different countries, explore museums, and fight zombies from home — wirelessly, at a more affordable price than earlier models. The Facebook-owned company also released a set of accessibility virtual reality checks (VRCs), which are recommendations to help other companies create inclusive VR software.
The pandemic reminded us of global health and safety inequities, but it also resparked the need for solutions. The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is keeping our hands clean, but 40% of the world’s population doesn’t have access to handwashing facilities with soap and water at home. SATO Tap is an affordable handwashing station that can be used anywhere in the home, even without running water. It’s designed for minimal contact, so it can be shared with multiple people.
Building community around a shared listening experience felt especially poignant during such an uncertain time, as though gathering around a virtual campfire. Clubhouse launched in March 2020 as an invite-only audio app featuring live discussions in “rooms” based on a specific topic. Twitter Spaces launched a competitive product in November, and both platforms were met with controversy around privacy and safety. As each app continues to iterate, and the world reopens, it will be interesting to see how user engagement shifts and if anyone’s still listening.
We couldn’t end this list without mentioning Subdial, a digital product we invented and developed ourselves. Last summer, we all saw how police intervention escalates situations rather than alleviating them. In fact, 80% of 911 calls don’t warrant a police response. Our team put heads together to develop an alternative to dialing 911, for situations that are best handled by other types of help. Subdial is just that. It’s a free mobile app to make it easier to find the most appropriate form of help for incidents involving mental health, domestic disturbances, homelessness, and more.
2020 offered fertile testing ground across a wide range of situations and scenarios, from the lighthearted to the life-saving. As we noted, the most innovative aspect of technology can lie in discovering new ways to use it. We’ll likely be learning about ways the pandemic accelerated innovation, for years to come.