A team from Fredericton geomapping startup 3D Planeta has launched a Software-as-a-Service business to help stores and restaurants manage social distancing during COVID-19.

The 2metre app allows shoppers waiting in line to disperse and receive a text message when the store can accommodate them. It can also log personal information to comply with government contact-tracing requirements.

Development of 2metre began in April, as coronavirus cases surged in North America and highlighted the need for more organized social distancing in public spaces. Company CEO Norm Couturier compared his team’s creation of the app to the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One team reassigning its engineers to design medical equipment in March.

“As companies were making masks and ventilators and repurposing engineering staff, and so on, we said, ‘What can we do?’” said Couturier in an interview. “We can’t build masks, we can’t build ventilators, but we can build technology.”

The service costs $29 a month, to be paid by the shop or restaurant. He said the bulk of that money goes towards offsetting development costs and other overheads.

About 10 staff from 3D Planeta’s 15-person team have been working consistently on 2metre, but every employee has devoted some time to the new project.

3D Planeta Revamps Business Tactics During Pandemic

To use 2metre, stores and restaurants post employees at each entrance. The employees use a counter in the app to track their business’s occupancy levels, and when the building is at capacity, they stop allowing customers to enter.

Customers waiting in line can share their phone number to receive updates about when the business will be able to accommodate them, allowing them to wait in their car or elsewhere.

“Winter’s coming. There are thunderstorms. There are times when you can’t wait in a line outside,” said Couturier.

Each business that subscribes to the service is also assigned a phone number that customers can text before they arrive in order to virtually “join the line.”

When Couturier initially tried approaching national retailers for customer-discovery, he received a lukewarm reception.

After New Brunswick, Ontario and British Columbia instituted requirements that businesses collect personal information from their customers for contact-tracing, his team pivoted to focus their efforts on local businesses that needed help with regulatory compliance.

“We said, ‘Instead of just piloting this and organically growing it, let’s make a concentrated effort to put it out on the street,'” said Couturier, referring to an ongoing marketing push that has leaned heavily on social media and email-based promotion.

The result is that 2metre now has several customers in New Brunswick, one in Mississauga, Ont., and a roster of inbound sales prospects.

With the global public health outlook still murky, Couturier said he is looking to create a more durable business model for 2metre by focusing on the needs of consumers, rather than just companies.

Once 2metre has been adopted by enough retailers and other businesses, the development team plans to release another app that will allow consumers to check wait times at various destinations to help plan their outings.

That strategy differs from the conventional model of a “single-channel” line of communication between retailers and customers.

Couturier added that, with COVID-19 looking set to become a recurring public health problem, he expects crowded cities outside of Atlantic Canada to become 2metre’s largest markets.