Japanese companies building products promoting hygiene, with Covid-19 set to stay

TOKYO – With the coronavirus set to stay even as some countries begin to ease out of shutdowns, Japanese companies are using and building technology that foresees pandemic-era practices becoming the new normal.

These practices include the need to put on face masks outdoors, as well as the practice of proper hand-washing.

Uniqlo, which is owned by Fast Retailing, plans to produce face masks made from fabric used in its Airism line of inner-wear.

The patented material wicks away moisture and dries quickly, producing a cooling effect, and the plan to produce face masks comes as experts warn that conventional masks will gravely increase the risk of heatstroke.

Wearing masks reduces the amount of external air reaching the lungs, and can result in shortness of breath that makes it easier for heat to accumulate inside the body, Dr Yasufumi Miyake, head of the advanced emergency medical service centre at Teikyo University Hospital, told Kyodo News.

Fujitsu, meanwhile, has built technology that relies on artificial intelligence to confirm whether users have followed the proper hand-washing steps as recommended by the Japanese health authorities.

These plans come despite Japan having lifted its state of emergency on Monday (May25), having escaped the explosive surge of cases seen elsewhere but wary that Covid-19 is here to stay for good.

“The risk of infections cannot be reduced to zero,” warned top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga at a regular news briefing on Tuesday. “We must continue to follow a ‘new lifestyle’ to gradually increase socio-economic activities, while taking steps to manage the risk of infections.”

What this means is that demand for face masks and hygiene-related products – including the range of “touchless technology” that Japan Inc has recently developed – will continue for some time.

Uniqlo was initially wary of making face masks, but reportedly changed its mind after assessing large demand from customers.

The decision to use its Airism material comes as medical workers worldwide have given feedback that wearing the inner-wear beneath protective gear can ease stuffiness and other discomfort. Uniqlo has since donated the functional inner-wear to hospitals globally, including 20,000 units to New York.

Uniqlo plans to produce face masks made from fabric used in its Airism line of inner-wear. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Fast Retailing chairman Tadashi Yanai told the Nikkei newspaper that the masks will be sold through Uniqlo brick-and-mortar and online stores for “under a few thousand yen” (1,000 yen is S$13.20).

Fujitsu foresees demand for its hand-wash movement recognition technology, which is now undergoing verification trials in Japan.

It expects the system, known as Actlyzer, to be used in places such as food manufacturers, restaurants, medical facilities, schools, hotels and large event venues.

The tech giant expects the artificial intelligence-based programme to save man-hours and reduce human error by reducing the need for visual confirmation of strict adherence to hand-washing guidelines at work-sites.

It can also educate users on proper hand-washing techniques, given that improper methods will be caught by the system.

Fujitsu said the programme can identify complex hand-washing actions through the use of video data.

These actions otherwise cannot be picked up by conventional image recognition software because the foam from soap bubbles obscures the hands and makes it difficult to detect movements.

“Amid the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic, the importance of hand-washing as a measure to protect people’s health from bacteria, influenza and other infectious diseases is gaining renewed attention worldwide,” Fujitsu said.

It hopes to meet a need for “a non-invasive approach to quickly and accurately confirm that hand-washing is carried out in a proper manner”.

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