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Start-up founded by UCSD graduate helps college students avoid crowds on campus amid pandemic

Geisel Library at UC San Diego
Students leave Geisel Library at UC San Diego. The university deploys Occuspace’s sensor technology, which enables students to use a mobile app to find out how many people are at popular gathering places.
(File)

Occuspace monitors occupancy at libraries and other high-traffic areas, enabling students to check crowds via a mobile app.

As college students return to school amid the coronavirus pandemic, a San Diego start-up is helping them stay safe through technology that monitors crowds in real time in libraries, gyms and other high-traffic locations around campus.

Occuspace, founded by UC San Diego graduate Nic Halverson, uses a sensor that plugs into an electrical wall socket to pinpoint Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signals from mobile devices such as laptops and smartphones within about 4,000 square feet.

An algorithm then predicts occupancy at up to 95 percent accuracy, the company says.

Occuspace also says privacy protections have been built in to make the data anonymous and that it does not gather or store any information that would reveal a person’s identity.

Students see through a mobile app how many people are at popular gathering places, thus avoiding crowds and the hassle of being turned away when buildings reach occupancy limits under physical distancing guidelines.

The start-up’s technology has been deployed mostly in libraries at about a dozen universities so far, including UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara.

Nic Halverson, a graduate of UC San Diego, is the founder and chief executive of Occuspace.
(Courtesy)

Since mid-April, customers and sales have surged nearly fivefold, Halverson said.

“We have more inbound interest than we’ve ever had,” he said. “We raised a bit more money, doubled team size from four to eight people and are still growing faster than we can handle, which is fun.”

Based on current expectations, Halverson hopes to be in more than 30 schools by January, and he believes growth will continue as more institutions bring back students.

Occuspace is among several technology tools being rolled out at universities to help students maintain physical distancing. They include a pilot program at UC San Diego and UC San Francisco that uses Bluetooth on cellphones to find people who have come in contact with the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Some college campuses have emerged as hotbeds for new coronavirus cases this fall. A surge at San Diego State University forced the school to pause in-person classes.

Occuspace was slated for SDSU’s library, Halverson said, but the installation was paused because the building remains closed.

The University of Rochester in New York plugged in Occuspace at one of its libraries in August ahead of students returning for the fall semester. Students can check for crowds using Occuspace’s free Waitz app, or through the university’s mobile app.

“This is part of our approach to helping folks to make responsible choices and empowering them to be safe and conscientious,” said Lauren Di Monte, assistant dean for digital and research strategies.

Di Monte said Occuspace was easy to install and allows the university to identify spaces where staff might need to perform walk-throughs to ensure physical distancing. Since crowds were a sore spot at the library even before the coronavirus, Di Monte said she expects Occuspace will continue to be offered post-pandemic.

The Occuspace mobile app tracks crowds at gathering places on campuses.
The Occuspace mobile app tracks crowds at gathering places on campuses. The data also can be integrated into existing apps of universities and other customers.
(Courtesy)

Occuspace was born in 2017 out of Halverson’s struggles in finding study space at UC San Diego’s Geisel Library. The company has raised $600,000 to date and is seeking additional investor funding.

Amid the pandemic, interest in Occuspace has expanded beyond universities, Halverson said. It is working with ski resorts to deliver lift wait times and has been approached by national fitness clubs, as well as apartment landlords with onsite gyms, he said.

Halverson believes gyms are a natural extension of the technology, which he would like to see eventually integrated into services such as Apple Maps, Google Maps and Yelp.

“The visitor experience to a place is a lot worse when it’s really crowded or you have to wait a long time,” he said. “And COVID helped a lot of people start to see more value in telling people how busy a space is before they come. So we’ve started to break out of universities and get into new verticals as well.” ◆