Amazon Unveils ‘Distance Assistant’

The technology uses augmented reality to encourage employees to stay six feet apart.

June 17, 2020

SEATTLE—Amazon has introduced a “distance assistant” AI machine linked to interior cameras to give its associates working in its buildings real-time feedback on social distancing, and the online retail giant plans to open source the software so other companies can set up their own systems.

“As we reimagined workstations and implemented new processes across our facilities, our engineering teams looked for ways to help maintain social distance,” said Brad Porter, vice president and distinguished engineer at Amazon, in a blog post. “One early solution we developed applies artificial intelligence and machine learning to the camera footage in our buildings to help site leaders identify high traffic areas and implement additional measures to improve social distancing.”

With social distancing difficult to manage, the Amazon team set out to use augmented reality to create a magic-mirror-like tool that helps associates see their physical distancing from others. Working backwards from a concept of immediate visual feedback and inspired by existing examples like radar speed check signs, Amazon’s Distance Assistant provides employees with live feedback on social distancing via a 50-inch monitor, a camera and a local computing device. The standalone unit uses machine learning models to differentiate people from their surroundings. Combined with depth sensors, it creates an accurate distance measurement between associates.

Here’s how it works: As people walk past the camera, a monitor displays live video with visual overlays to show if associates are within six feet of one another. Individuals remaining six feet apart are highlighted with green circles, while those who are closer together are highlighted with red circles. The on-screen indicators are designed to remind and encourage associates to maintain appropriate distance from others. The self-contained device requires only a standard electrical outlet, and it can be quickly deployed to building entrances and other high-visibility areas.

Amazon’s first Distance Assistant installations are now live at a handful of its buildings. “We’ve heard that employees find value in getting immediate visual feedback, and site leaders are welcoming another safety measure. Based on that positive employee feedback, we will be deploying hundreds of these units over the next few weeks. We are also beginning the process to open source the software and AI behind this innovation so that anyone can create their own Distance Assistant,” Porter said.

Coronavirus Resources

NACS has compiled resources to help the convenience retail community navigate the COVID-19 crisis. For news updates and guidance, visit our coronavirus resources page.