Could artificial intelligence help restaurants reopen in a safer way? Seattle-based RealNetworks hopes so. The 26-year-old tech company has recently launched an app called MaskCheck that can detect whether someone is wearing a face covering properly through AI and encourages compliance via audible feedback. Though the app is generally intended for use in heavily trafficked venues, such as schools and public transportation, restaurants may find it useful as well, particularly once restrictions on indoor dining lift again.
The free app — available nationwide for Android and iOS — uses a tablet’s camera to determine full coverage for masks over a person’s nose and mouth, without using facial recognition or collecting any personally identifiable information. It then produces an audio message depending on whether someone is “good to go” or needs to make adjustments to the mask. The app can also send alerts to a manager of the venue if someone is detected without a face covering on at all.
So far, the app has only been deployed to two Seattle-area schools (The Bush School in Madison Valley and Seattle School for Boys near Judkins Park), as well as a liquor store in Washington, D.C. According to the company, health and transportation organizations in Washington, New York, D.C, and Texas have expressed interest in using MaskCheck as well. While no restaurants or bars have used it yet, the intention is to encourage many different types of retail and hospitality venues to give it a try.
The immediate benefits could seem somewhat cosmetic. Though the app can detect whether someone is wearing a mask properly, most restaurants, bars, and cafes are small enough that non-compliance would be obvious anyway. Also, the app can’t follow a person around a dining room to ensure that a person is keeping a mask on at all times. Letting an automated voice issue a reminder, though, may help some restaurant staff avoid messy confrontations. “It’s a great way to remove some tension,” says RealNetworks VP of Consumer Products, Frederick Savoye. “Almost like a flashing speed limit sign.”
But the real potential boon could be in the app’s anonymous data tabulation. Though MaskCheck doesn’t collect personal information, it does calculate mask compliance in general, which would give a snapshot of how good (or poorly) diners are doing on the mask-wearing front. Regulations centered around indoor dining are all about mitigating risk — and in many states like Washington, masks are mandatory when entering a restaurant. However, monitoring such mandates are often pure guesswork. This tool might offer restaurants more tangible stats around public health compliance. If many restaurants used the app, and the percentage of customers detected by the app wearing masks were extremely high (say over 90 percent), such numbers could give local officials confidence to gradually loosen dining restrictions — or at least provide some more detailed data to make future decisions.
Of course, all of that is speculative for now, since the app is still in its infancy, and it’s unclear how many businesses in the area or nationally may end up downloading MaskCheck. But, at first glance, some in the local restaurant scene are intrigued. “I think the app is a good idea,” says Kelly Ronan, manager at upscale Capitol Hill restaurant Lark. “Anything that can help remind people to keep their mask on is helpful. [But] I just do not know if it would work in a sit-down situation when different people have masks off at different times to eat or drink.”
Sean Xie, co-owner of the new Sichuan restaurant Chengdu Taste in the International District, already has a device set up out front that takes customers’ temperatures through a camera when they first walk in. To him, MaskCheck would be redundant, but he sees how the behavioral science behind it makes sense. “I think in the end, it’s not really about forcing people to wear masks or checking temperatures,” he says. “It’s more about asking people to be aware of your surroundings. Protect yourself and others.”