Carnegie Mellon University
April 22, 2020

CMU Spinoff Uses AI to Address COVID-19

By Michael Henninger

Jason Maderer
  • Marketing and Communications
  • 412-268-1151
Cameras monitor stores, hotels, hospitals, airport terminals, public parks and parking lots. When computer vision technology company Zensors spun out of Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) two years ago, the founding members created an artificial intelligence (AI) capable of analyzing images and video from those cameras and turning it into actionable data. Now they're offering up that AI to organizations worldwide to be used in response to COVID-19.

In March, Zensors announced it would open its platform, at no cost through June 1, to stores, governments, hospitals, airports and essential businesses to help deal with the coronavirus.

"We can start giving actionable data today using our clients' existing cameras," said Anuraag Jain, a School of Computer Science and HCII alumnus and creator of the Zensors technology. "It's that straightforward to use. Our product was designed to automate space analytics such as occupancy, crowd flow, wait times and related staffing needs, which can aid the implementation of new social distancing requirements and protect public health."

As the coronavirus spreads, Zensors' ability to provide real-time space occupancy and social distancing information using existing cameras could potentially help hospitals, grocery stores and other essential businesses decrease the risk of person-to-person transmission.

Zensors works on existing fixed cameras, which are generally used for the purpose of security. Their AI treats these cameras as sensors, providing information about the environment they see. For example, if a park that is supposed to be closed due to a state shutdown is surging in foot traffic on a weekend, Zensors can alert officials by counting how many cars are in the parking lot. Or if customers in a grocery store are standing closer together in line than recommended by social distancing guidelines, an alert can be sent over loudspeakers recommending they move apart.

All of this actionable data is provided while ensuring personal privacy — a core tenant of Zensors' corporate philosophy.

Zensors currently counts five airports in North America, including the Pittsburgh International Airport, and the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, among its clients. It operates out of the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship, a hub for entrepreneurial activities across CMU.

The Swartz Center financially supports startups like Zensors, which won the McGinnis Venture Competition in 2018 and was chosen for the VentureBridge Silicon Valley 2018 program.

"Zensors is a true success story, exactly the kind of startup the Swartz Center was created to support," said Dave Mawhinney, executive director of the center. "It doesn't surprise me to know that a group of CMU alumni with a beneficial new technology have decided to make it openly available during a time of crisis. That's just the kind of people we have at Carnegie Mellon."

Jain believes that the Zensors' AI could provide immediate support to hospitals, grocery stores, airports, governments and any other business trying to operate and mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

"The world is moving toward employing more and more cameras, and we feel our role is to use the data they create to benefit society," Jain said. "People are in crisis right now, and we feel strongly that by opening our technology to a wider net, we could help to limit exposure to the virus."

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