By Deborah Anderson

IT is an unconscious act but we all seem to put our hand to our face several times a day simply out of habit.

However, early on in the coronavirus crisis it was one of the key pieces of advice to help prevent the spread of Covid, along with washing your hands, don’t touch your face, and stay at home.

And born out of concern for her elderly grandmother, public health expert Luisa Zettinig thought there must be something she could do help. Just a few short months later, with the help of her partner, Edinburgh-born entrepreneur Grant Gillon, she developed a wristband which trains your brain to stop you putting your hand to your face.

“I think we all felt a sense of loss of control being taken away from us at the beginning of lockdown,” said Ms Zettinig. “Families were separated and for us we couldn’t see our grandmother who was in a care home in Aberdeen and who was fighting hard to get over a stroke – I felt her control was being taken away from her.

“Even now we won’t be able to see her as she approaches her 89th birthday because of travel restrictions and it is hard for everyone.

“Here is my granny Audrey cut off from people while in her care home and I thought what can I do.”

With a background in public health and infectious disease control, Ms Zettinig drew on all her experience to look at what might help.

“It is really quite impossible to put the theory into practice of not touching your face,” she said.

“It is second nature, but I wondered if there was something that could be developed to stop you doing it,” Ms Zettinig added.

“Initially I thought of a necklace, but then came the idea of a wristband.”

With Mr Gillon at the forefront of the project, it didn’t take long before the idea went from the drawing board to design and then production – and now they have launched Nudge.

Ms Zettinig, 36, is proud of what they achieved and hopes it will have a role to play in helping to reduce virus transmission.

She added: “I think this is an additional safety layer and while it doesn’t replace the advice in place, such as handwashing, it is something that might give you a little bit of control.

“I think it will also create awareness in the fact face-touching plays a role in the spread of something like this, not just coronavirus, but also flu which is prevalent at this time of year.”

Mr Gillion, a University of Glasgow engineering graduate, was closely involved in the development of the technology and worked on the in-house development and training of the Nudge gesture recognition model.

He was also responsible for the design of the wristband, developing the design in CAD programmes, and then working with the manufacturer to refine the design and manufacturing process.

The Nudge wristband uses behavioural science and artificial intelligence to psychologically “nudge” the wearer.

Its developers say the band helps minimise wearers’ risk of catching infectious diseases and can also help many of the millions who suffer from body-focused repetitive behaviours, such as hair pulling, nail biting and skin picking.

The Nudge, which comes in at a price tag of £49.99, has been taught to differentiate between more than 1,000 different hand movements, including dancing, waving and clapping, and requires no calibration or fine-tuning on the part of users.

Using gesture recognition to constantly calculate hand movements, the device vibrates when it identifies the wearer is about to touch their face, sending them a warning.

These subtle vibrations effectively nudge the brain into new behaviours.

Mr Gillon, chief executive of Pivot1080, the company that makes the device, said: “Nudge was born out of worries for our own at-risk relatives.

“They were being advised to avoid touching their faces, but how? We know that it’s a habit first formed in the womb, so it’s not exactly an easy one to break.

“We looked at what was out there was to help and found nothing that people could just ‘pull out the box’ and start using to help straight away, particularly in the UK where there was nothing available at all.

“It uses its namesake, nudge theory, which states that friendly pushes can encourage positive behaviours.

“This theory has been around for some time and is gaining a huge amount of attention – even the UK Government has a behavioural insights team, informally known as the ‘nudge unit’.”

Mr Gillon hopes the device will have a place in future healthcare settings as well as being of benefit to individuals, and he is proud of the team.

He added: “It’s taken months of hard work from a team of specialists and Nudge has now been taught more than 1,000 hand movements and arm gestures to recognise when you’re touching your face or when you’re just waiving at someone.

“We think it could really help not only those at-risk from Covid-19, but also people who have no choice but to carry on with life and work outside the home for the time being.”

Read more: Chaotic Scot Travel blogger hit by Covid restrictions brings scents and aromas of Scotland to life