Erica Lundström, Industrial Design student

As part of Topp´s culture, we work with thesis students to support them in their projects. We believe this kind of exchange is an opportunity for mutual growth.

Earlier this year, we had the pleasure of working with Industrial Design student Erica Lundström to explore emerging themes within connected health. Her thesis project Viro, looks beyond the Quantified Self movement, exploring how connected devices may create wellbeing and prevent the spread of disease on an organizational scale.

Let’s have Erica explain what we discovered.

Hello Erica! In your thesis work, you decided to focus on health, what was the need you saw that is important to address?

Compared to the past, when the only one who really knew the status of your body was the doctor, sensor technology enables a democratization of expert knowledge. This is an interesting area and the market of smart healthcare products is rapidly increasing. The majority of the new products basically works as DIY-doctor tools, meaning you can now check and keep track of your own blood pressure, heart rate, pulse oxymetry and so on. Although these tools are exciting, I imagine that the users for these products is either curious tech-nerds (who use it for its novelty for a while) or people who are already diagnosed with a disease who would keep track of that levels anyway. But what about the rest, how could expert knowledge benefit an average person in an everyday situation? 

I spent some time looking into recent research reports within the medical field. One topic that I found interesting was about virology, the study of viruses. The topic rarely gets much attention (outside of the virology research field that is), even though virus diseases like the influenza affects us all from time to time. It seems like we’ve all just accepted it’s an unavoidable and inconvenient part of life. But the research I found indicated that it might actually be possible to disarm viral outbreaks by adjusting parameters linked to ventilation. So I saw an opportunity to develop a system that could minimize the spread of viruses diseases.

What is the impact of not addressing the problem (i.e virus infection)?

Viruses can be deadly and in addition to that it is expensive for the society. As an example, the yearly cost for the seasonal influenza in Sweden is 2,2 billion SEK. 90% of the cost is attributed to indirect costs such as loss of production. This means that  companies would especially benefit from putting more emphasis on trying to minimize viral transmission at workplaces. 

So, is it the companies that need to change? It sounds complicated and expensive…

Actually, it’s my belief that companies would benefit financially in the long term by taking actions against virus spread, since it would affect employee sick leave. It is similar to offering employees financial contribution on gym cards etc. to encourage a healthy lifestyle, which many (at least Swedish) companies do.

Can you explain your concept and how you came up with it?

The concept is a futuristic system for managing viral transmission. It is made up of a few components that were inspired and informed by my research. 

Everyone knows that virus transmits through direct and indirect contact, but researchers believe it is also spread through the air.  An increase in humidity has been suggested as a novel potential strategy for disarming viral outbreaks, since a more humid environment would affect the particle structure of the airborne virus. The initial opportunity, inspired by smart thermostats like Nest, was to develop a system that detects and measures virus particles in the air and control humidity levels and ventilation in relation to that. Simply put it meant; high level of virus particles, high level of humidity. Given the economical incentive for companies to reduce viral outbreaks, the system was targeted to office environments.

Cough in dry air
Cough in humidified air

Further into the process, when pinpointing the problem I realized that the fact that viruses spread through the air isn’t really the only problem. The underlying problem is that employees are at work when they are contagious. At that point the complexity of the project grew since I now had to approach a way to change peoples behavior, which always is very tricky. 

Just like we prepare ourselves for bad weather with an umbrella and a raincoat, we could prepare ourselves for an increased risk of virus.

Through qualitative research I found out that employees go to work despite being sick due to corporate culture and a lack of awareness of when you are contagious. So, in order to change employees behavior companies need to encourage them to stay at home while they are contagious. For companies to be motivated do this, they first need to be aware of the benefits associated with it. Secondly, employees need a way to detect contagiousness.

Then, you saw another problem to solve: making employees aware that they can be contagious, and informing their employer based on facts. What was your solution?

My solution is a breathalyzer, based on a novel technique of detecting virus particles from breath. It resembles a traditional thermometer and the usage scenario is similar, with the difference that the user blows into it. The tool, given to the employee as a health promoting gift, is connected to the virus management system at the office. Whenever there is a positive diagnosis, that information is passed on to the system. This information is part of the algorithm calculating the risk of transmission at the office. The benefits for the employee to use the device is awareness but also justification. 

My belief is that it would make it possible to talk about contagiousness differently than today, since there would be a ”diagnosis” to refer to, which could simplify discussions with colleagues and bosses. The breathalyzer is used together with a companion app, for instructions and result. Another functionality of the app would be risk alerts. These would be sent from the office management system to the app, informing when the risk level is increased. The benefit of the alerts would be for the individual to know when to be extra careful, for example by washing their hands more often and keeping their distance from others.

In the end, the concept includes both a service and a product with the aim to decrease sick leave. It consists of five parts; the air sensor that detects virus particles, a humidifier, the breathalyzer with an associated app and of course the hub itself. The hub watches multiple data streams (air data, employee data, as well as external data like flu reports) and calculates the general risk level. The risk level is related to recommendations of appropriate course of action. A medium risk level might be handled by a slight increase of humidity, a recommendation for employees to work from home and order of extra cleaning. A high risk level might lead to a closed office and maximum humidity. 

It’s very interesting but it’s a change of behaviour, how long do you think it will take us humans to adapt this new method of prevention?

During the project it became clear that one has to be humble and careful when dealing with this type of issue. First, diseases are scary in general and even though a virus infection isn’t the end of the world, it might still be scary to people. It is probable that this kind of system would require a certain amount of time to get used to, especially the risk alerts. With time, I would like for people to see them much like a weather forecast. Just like we prepare ourselves for bad weather with an umbrella and a raincoat, we could prepare ourselves for an increased risk of virus.

Thanks Erica, we have really enjoyed working with you, you really digged into the root of the problem! We wish you the best of luck and we’d love to see this implemented in a near future. 

If you are a student with a background in IxD, Computer Science or Visual/Motion Design, and would like to do an internship at our studio, we'd love to hear from you. Send us an email to apply@topp.se