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Touchscreens are everywhere at this point. But the COVID-19 pandemic could be the big break that touchless interface technologies have been waiting for.

Chris Wiltz

June 3, 2020

6 Min Read
COVID-19 Giving Touchless Interfaces a Chance to Make an Impression


(Image source: ESI Design)

If we start seeing more touchless interface options in businesses and public spaces, we’ll probably have the novel coronavirus to thank.

By now most of us have used some sort of touchless control. It was most likely voice control whether its Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant. Savvy engineers who use VR/AR in their workflows might even have tried using eye tracking to control virtual interfaces and environments. Yet all we have to do is look in our pockets to realize that touch is still the king of interfaces.

But several months living in a world where touch can be hazardous to your health might change that. For many people COVID-19 pandemic has transformed ATMs, self-checkouts, payment terminals, fast food kiosks, and other shared, touch-based interfaces from a wonderful convenience into a reason to have an anxiety attack.

In a piece for The Guardian physician Gavin Francis summed up the experience nicely:

“Flying out of Newark, I found myself in a departure terminal where every table was festooned with tablet computers on stalks. They flashed like gambling machines, entertainment as well as shopping opportunities. To speak to a companion it was necessary to peer over these screens. All food and all payment was to be ordered by touching the tablets. Maybe they wipe them clean regularly, I thought, as I watched a kid pick his nose then start playing with the screen.”

While it’s certainly possible that we’ll revert back to our old touchy ways once the coronavirus pandemic blows over, concerns over the cleanliness and safety of public touchscreens existed long before COVID-19.

“It’s hard not to think that the business impact of this will be huge. At the most fundamental level, if people are reluctant to touch public screens, that’s going to make them less likely to interact or make a purchase,” Saurabh Gupta, Director of Product at Ultraleap, wrote in a recent blog post.

“...We can’t go back to a world where the only option is a staffed cash register or check-in desk...Finding ways for consumers to use self-serve options without coming into contact with them is likely to be one of the features determining which businesses successfully navigate their way out of the Covid-19 crisis – and which fall by the wayside,” he said.

Ultraleap has a particular vested interest in touchless technology. The company is actively developing technology that uses a combination of ultrasonic waves and sophisticated, infrared hand-tracking technology to create touchless interfaces that can be controlled by bare-handed gesture control as well as provide haptic feedback to users.

The company has already unveiled several concepts such as the one below from CES 2018 which uses holographic projections to create a touchless ATM experience:

Gupta is not alone in his assertion that touchless will see a boom in the post-COVID-19 world.

Andrew Lazarow is a Senior Designer and A/V Technologist at ESI Design, a firm that creates large-scale interactive experiences for museums, offices, schools, sports venues, and other businesses. Lazarow told Design News that what’s particularly exciting right now is the range of touchless technologies available to developers. “At ESI Design we always start with who a design is for, and what the audiences experiences should be. When we zoom out to that level almost anything can be an input – or sensor – and just about anything can be an output,” he said. “For depth-sensing cameras with API’s for gesture recognition time of flight (i.e. Azure Kinect) and active stereo (i.e. Intel Realsense) are leading the way. Both have their own pros and cons depending on where they might be installed.”

At a larger scale he said technologies like solid-state LiDAR have been tested for years and show promise. Even voice has its advantages over touch. “One clear strength of voice interactivity is that it does not require a steep learning curve. For many languages and dialects, development and API’s for voice are constantly becoming more reliable and conversational,” Lazarow said. “The biggest concern I see with voice interactivity used in public spaces is privacy. How would our conversations change if we knew every word could be recorded? Would brands, property owners or building managers seek to monetize that data? Thankfully, I think we have a few years to sort out those ethics.”

Touchless Can Also Mean Personal

There’s no denying however that a big shift to touchless would also mean a big investment in infrastructure changes for businesses and offices. Even simply augmenting touch interfaces with touchless capability could come with a significant time and cost investment.

But the key to a move to touchless could already be sitting in our pockets. What if instead of creating new, touchless interfaces we started moving away from shared devices and more toward our own personal devices? We already do this with smart home features like Bluetooth locks and other features like Apple Pay. Why not extend this further?

In a blog post, Lee Billington, the director of the Digital Experience Design practice at the architectural firm Gensler, said that while this approach may not be as “cutting edge” as others it still reduces virus spread and also lowers the learning curve for people, since they are already familiar with their own mobile devices.

“Widespread adoption of workplace experience apps may not seem revolutionary, but rather as simply the next evolutionary step, and that’s by design,” Billington wrote. “For years, smart companies have been slowly building digital infrastructures to support user technology layers that control the environment around the worker. The current landscape gives you and your company a chance to step back and assess if you’re on the right track for supporting the use of employees’ mobile devices in the workplace.”

ESI’s Lazarow agreed with this assessment. “Using personal devices such as smartphones is a great way to maintain, and even bring in new, capabilities for interactivity,” he told Design News. “For interactions or spaces that require higher degrees of security NFC can be utilized for new purposes. We can also distribute cards or objects with RFID tags embedded, as a low-cost option for a personal interactive or triggering device.”

Smartphone apps and in-store Wi-Fi offer a much more cost-friendly solution for businesses like retailers that might be unwilling to take on the cost of upgrading to touchless hardware in their brick and mortar locations. “I can see the more innovative retailers, and those with strong analytics, doing more with RFID tags,” Lazarow said. “Burberry, for example, has already been using RFID has already been using RFID embedded in their clothing to drive customer-specific media experiences for customers after they make a purchase. I can imagine retailers using this opportunity to track shoppers movements and behaviors more closely than ever.”


Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at  Design News covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics.

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