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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

It's a Big Year for ‘Clean Tech’ at CES

In the best of times, CES is disgusting. Previous to this year, when CES was moved online because of an increasingly deadly pandemic, the tentpole event for the consumer technology industry was notorious for being a cesspool of germs. Hundreds of thousands of attendees would congregate in Las Vegas every January to crowd together, cough into the air, and unwittingly smear their excretions across touchscreens, rotating TVs, and robot bartenders.

“We talk about CES as a petri dish,” says Carolina Milanesi, a technology analyst and founder of the market research firm The Heart of Tech. “You touch a lot of stuff all the time. Catching the flu at CES is something we always do, every year.”

But this year’s virtual event will be the cleanest of them all, and not just because there aren’t any crowds to sneeze on. With the world still gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic, the first-ever online CES has become a place for companies to show off new tech meant to make the world more sanitary.

So far we’ve seen dozens of cleaning gadgets, from antimicrobial backpacks to truly insane UV-light-spewing, air-purifying robots. There are portable UV light cleaners for your car, for your glasses, or for anything else. Components designed to zap germs have been folded into a slew of air purifiers, wireless chargers, and refrigerators, launching a new breed of multi-use Swiss Army gadgets.

Even the gadgets that don't directly do any cleaning are being designed to be cleaned more quickly. Phone cases, screen protectors, laptops, and touchscreens made from antimicrobial material that encourages swift and thorough sanitizing. (“Antimicrobial,” “antibacterial,” and “antiviral” are all vying to become the "gluten-free" of consumer gadgets.)

Touchy Feely

There’s an even more elegant solution to going germ-free, which is to simply make tech that you don’t have to touch.

“I see more companies using voice and touchless experiences with devices,” Milanesi says. As an example, she says places of business can be designed to verify people’s identity through facial recognition, or authentication with a phone or some other device that has an RFID chip, thereby limiting the number of surfaces employees or visitors need to touch.

Manufacturers have to be careful not to press too hard when marketing their products to a pandemic-spooked crowd. The not-so-fine print of all the claims companies are making at CES about their latest disinfecting tech is that none of the methods being used are guaranteed to prevent Covid. (Scrubbing a dirty touchscreen won’t go a long way toward killing an airborne virus.) Still, the pandemic has brought heightened awareness of just how filthy the world can be, and marketers are taking advantage of it.

“There's a lot of money to be made in this space, and most of that money is probably being made by less than scrupulous actors in the field,” says Jeffrey Siegel, a civil engineering professor at the University of Toronto who researches ventilation and indoor air quality. “So there's a lot more kind of ‘hygiene theater’ than there is actual stuff that works out there.”

Much of this tech is at least tangentially based on valid science. Air filtration is a tricky, complicated business, but it’s one of the main ways that experts say the spread of Covid could be controlled. Even a cheap, homemade air purifier might help limit the spread of viruses in a room, if done right. Hospitals use specialized UVC lights to sanitize equipment. This type of light can be incredibly harmful on surfaces and especially your skin and eyes, and when you see consumer gadgets with UV sanitizers in them, what’s most likely being used is the shorter wavelength (and much gentler) far-UVC light. Still, far-UVC has been shown to inactivate airborne coronavirus particles.

So while the tech is promising, it must be used correctly in order to be effective.

UV light, for example, isn’t as simple as strobe-and-go. Research has shown that it can take up to 25 minutes at currently recommended exposure levels for far-UVC light to fully inactivate the virus on an object—which is likely longer than most people are willing to go without fiddling with their phones. The computer accessories company Targus announced a UV light that sits on your desk, hovering over your keyboard, where it can kill viruses sitting on the keys. However, in order for it to be truly effective, you have to run the light for five minutes every hour.

“I do get nervous seeing some tech that has claims of being antiviral, like some UV disinfection technology, which can be really wonderful but requires significant validation and safety considerations,” says Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University, who I reached via email. “Hospitals use UV-C tech frequently but go through considerable steps to ensure efficacy and safety measures are taken. Things like UV wands worry me in terms of just how effective they are, and if people realize they are supplemental to cleaning and disinfection, not a replacement.”

Breathe in the Air

Air filtration is another sticky issue. A portable air purifier might seem handy, but if it’s too small or not powerful enough, it won’t be able to move enough air to properly filter a room. Even if the purifier is efficient, how well it works will depend on a variety of factors as variable as the different environments where you might find yourself: the number of people in a room, the shape of the room, its temperature and humidity, and so on.

“Context is everything,” Siegel says. “Even those good technologies don’t magically work out of the box. They have to be done well.”

Even if your air purifier earns the highest marks, as long as there’s a pandemic, there’s always going to be a risk of infection. On the first day of CES, the Korean consumer tech giant LG touted a slew of air purifiers, including a face mask with an electronic filter. Some health experts derided the mask back when it was announced last August, saying that such high tech could instill wearers with a false sense of security and lead them to engage in riskier behavior. It’s a criticism that has been levied at a lot of this newfangled cleaning tech.


“There’s that balance between behavior and the effectiveness of the solution itself,” Milanesi says. “I just hope that we’re not going to have a whitewash of this, where everything is going to be labeled, but the range of solutions is going to be very different and therefore it’s going to be harder for consumers to see what they can trust and what they can not trust.”

Still, pandemic-inspired tech has the potential to be more than a panic-induced fad. Even if the technology itself drifts out of the limelight, the habits and awareness this terrible period has necessitated can be applied to make the world healthier in the long term.

“At my most optimistic, I think we have an amazing opportunity here,” Siegel says. “We all know that there are really serious health disparities in almost every society on earth. Good indoor air could really be an equalizer of some of those health disparities.”

The benefits could extend outside the home as well. Better air filtration and surfaces that are more conducive to cleaning could keep viruses from spreading in schools and offices. More investment in no-touch tech could be hugely beneficial for people who are immunocompromised, or even just otherwise unable to interact with traditional tech in public places.

“There’s definitely value in keeping some of these technologies and deploying them long term,” Milanesi says. “Even if you’re just preventing the flu at school, any parent will be grateful.”

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